In 2023, a film about a serial killer feels strangely quaint. Gone are the days when a single man—it was almost always a man—could credibly and anonymously terrorize a city. These days, we have mass shooters who commit crimes for the clicks. Anonymity is their nightmare, not their cover. “Boston Strangler,” based on the true story of a killer who targeted single women in early ‘60s Boston, can be a difficult watch due to its gruesome content, but also an oddly pleasurable one. It trades on a perverse nostalgia for an era when crime was straightforward, even when it was horrific, and a criminal could be stopped by intrepid journalists and the occasional honest cop.
Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) is a reporter on the lifestyle beat, i.e. woman’s news, for the Boston Record-American in the early ‘60s. Desperate for a more important story, she cajoles her editor (Chris Cooper) into letting her cover a murder. A woman has been strangled and left with a scarf tied in a bow around her neck. With a very little digging, she makes a connection to other murders that the police have somehow overlooked. Succeeding where they have failed doesn’t go over well with the men in blue. The police commissioner (Bill Camp) attacks her in public and private, using her inexperience and gender to deflect from her ace reporting.
It’s “She Said” meets “Zodiac,” although “Boston Strangler” doesn’t match the former’s insight into the everyday compromises of working women or the latter’s aesthetic and technical brilliance. As Loretta digs deeper into the case—and more bodies begin to show up—her home life begins to suffer, but it never feels like writer-director Matt Ruskin has a handle on her conflict. In his eyes, she doesn’t have a problem. The world does. Loretta is happy to devote herself fully to the case and neglect her family. It turns her once-supportive husband (Morgan Spector) into a selfish brute. When he accepts a promotion at work as a way of forcing her into spending less time at the office, it’s a convincingly nasty move, but it makes her marriage seem woefully simplistic, withholding from her a complexity of character that would make the film more interesting.
As it stands, the film feels the most convicted of its purpose when it simply lets its women work. Knightley is well-cast as a young reporter doggedly pursuing the story and fighting systemic misogyny; from “Bend it like Beckham” to “Official Secrets,” she is always at her best when refusing to bend to society’s wishes. Quickly, Loretta gets paired up with Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), a more experienced reporter who teaches her to quit worrying about what her male bosses think and focus on the work. It’s a neat bit of synergy: As they work to protect Boston’s women from a killer, they are simultaneously fighting for themselves.
Ruskin stages the action with an eye towards ruthless efficiency. He reportedly refused to let his main actors experiment with Boston accents. It’s a merciful decision, as the history of cinema is littered with embarrassing attempts to nail America’s most challenging dialect. Visually, he opts for a no-sunny-days aesthetic common to period pieces set in the 1970s, all greens, browns, and grays. Again it evokes “Zodiac,” which is both a blessing and a curse. Linking yourself to the best serial killer movie ever made puts “Boston Strangler” in good company, but its relative paucity of depth, insight, and character work stands out even more in contrast.
Then again, sometimes a straightforward approach—like good, solid reporting—gets the job done, even if it never ascends to greatness. In the second half, “Boston Strangler” takes some fascinating true-to-life turns. A killer reveals himself and confesses early in the film, leaving diligent viewers checking their watch and thinking, “It can’t be over yet!”” It’s not. The knotty resolution doesn’t provide any of the satisfaction we expect from a classic serial killer story (perhaps another nod to “Zodiac” and its delightfully ambiguous ending), but it provides insight into the depth of the man’s cowardice. “Boston Strangler” is ultimately a story about a vicious boys’ club and the women who managed to push their way in together. While it would have benefitted from a stronger, more original vision, it succeeds at its modest task of telling their story.
“Boston Strangler” is streaming now on Hulu.