‘Boston Strangler’ review: Keira Knightley is reliably great in film that highlights important work of the female journalists rather than the serial killer they’re covering
Matt Ruskin’s Boston Strangler is not the first time the titular serial killer has appeared onscreen. The 1964 The Strangler was inspired by the murders, and the 1968 The Boston Strangler, starring Henry Fonda and Tony Curtis, is a highly fictionalized account of the murderer’s life. What makes Ruskin’s film immediately unique is his focus on the female journalists who broke the story of the killer for the Boston Record American and brought attention to how the police system was failing the victims.
The historical crime drama is inspired by the true story of the 1960s serial killer who killed thirteen women in and around Boston, Massachusetts. He’s now known as “the Boston Strangler,” a name given to him by the two female journalists who led the reporting on the case, Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) and Jean Cole (Carrie Coon). The film centers around their investigative reporting of the murders, as they were the ones to tie together that these murders were done by the same person.
Loretta is introduced to the audience as a working mother struggling to be taken seriously at the newspaper, where she’s relegated to “women’s topics” on the lifestyle desk and isn’t allowed to do crime reporting. The scene in which she asks to report on one of the first of these murders and is instead instructed to review a new toaster is one that will resonate with many women who have faced this sort of discrimination that still exists today.
But Loretta offers to cover the murder cases on her own time and eventually wins over her editor Jack MacLaine (Chris Cooper). She’s paired up with Jean, a more seasoned female reporter, and forms a valuable working partnership with her. Knightley and Coon are both great in their roles, with Coon’s no-nonsense attitude contrasting nicely with Knightley’s slightly softer demeanor. Knightley has a unique ability to be intense without seeming hard, and it’s well-used here.
Boston Strangler shows how Loretta’s home life is influenced by her dedication to this case as well, with everyone from her neighbor to her mother to her sister-in-law criticizing how it takes her away from her children. Even her husband James (Morgan Spector), while initially supportive, cannot understand her commitment to attempting to get justice for these murdered women.
Too often, films and television series about serial killers fall on the wrong side of the line of glamorizing or romanticizing the horrific deeds that were committed. However, Boston Strangler never veers towards that at all, and very rarely is the audience shown the violent acts directly. There are a few scenes in which we get a non-graphic view of the killer attacking a woman, but it is mostly revealed through crime scene photographs and descriptions of the crimes.
The film is very respectful of the real victims of the so-called Boston Strangler and, rather than exploring motives and reasonings behind the killings, focuses its ire on the police department that didn’t take the investigation seriously enough. The screenplay doesn’t shy away from criticizing Loretta and Jean when relevant; we see that Loretta is in over her head at times, places herself in unsafe situations, and helps create the myth of the killer that may have prevented multiple people’s involvement from being discovered.
The film’s greatest issue is its pacing and momentum. There are a few truly tense moments, but with most of the film being centered around Loretta interviewing people, it’s easy for it to feel flat. When it does get into its more exciting moments, it can lean into melodrama (especially with its score by Paul Leonard-Morgan), but Knightley does a good job of keeping it from going too far. However, the gloomy grey color grading brings a monotony to the film, despite subtle but well-done period costume and production design.
Despite some pacing issues, whether you already know the details of the Boston Strangler case or not, the film should be able to hold your attention because of how it frames the story. Seeing the connection between Loretta and Jean form and witnessing Loretta come into her own as an investigative reporter keeps the film engaging. Knightley, Coon, and Cooper are a formidable cast, and it’s exciting to see another addition to the small canon of films about female journalists. Even though it’s not the greatest journalistic investigation film ever made, Boston Strangler is notable for being a great example of a fictionalized film about true crime done well.
Boston Stranger premieres March 17 only on Hulu.
Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios