Boston Strangler is not a film that bemoans the state of society that breeds serial killers. The film won’t attempt to dissect the mind of the killer who terrorized women and murdered 13 or more. No, Boston Strangler, much like the recent journalist drama She Said, speaks to the tenacity of women who see a lapse in the system they once believed in and who decide to do something about it.
Written and directed by Matt Ruskin, Boston Strangler follows Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) and Jean Cole (Carrie Coon) and how they uncovered the story of a serial killer in Massachusetts. The duo must overcome sexism and police red tape to uncover the truth and share it with the innocent women who would have otherwise been left in the dark. The film seldom entertains the killer’s perspective because this isn’t his story.
Knightley and Coon have proven to have immeasurable depth and talent and deploy their skills at full force here. Knightley sheds her well-known British accent for a deceptively good Massachusetts accent (though an expert would have to confirm if she actually passed with flying colors). Her version of the brave reporter is tenacious and ambitious. Loretta is slightly naive about asserting her power; otherwise, she is a brilliant and keen mind who discovered a connection that no member of law enforcement could. Coon’s Jean, on the other hand, is calm, cool, and collected. The actress delivers a solid contrast to Knightley’s performance. Both women effectively play reporters constantly pushing against society’s expectations and doing their best to succeed. Loretta and Jean carry this story because it’s theirs.
Ruskin’s film is impactful. It is pulling from the events that took place in the 1960s and 70s, and the information developed after Albert DeSalvo’s confessions. With some light dramatizations, the film effectively straddles the line between recounting true events and commentating on the state of journalism and police investigations. There is a particular focus on the botched confession, the ineffectiveness of the police in investigating each murder, and the numerous leads that slipped through the cracks. Ruskin’s film is not a total indictment of the Boston police department, but it provides helpful insight into how flawed the system is when politics, sexism, and the desire to maintain order can obscure the truth and obstruct justice.
Visually, Boston Strangler is a sleek picture. Ben Kutchins’ cinematography is evocative and transportive. The air is thick with uncertainty and danger as Kutchins captures the cloud of despair that has befallen the state. Ruskin’s directing is precise and to the point, with little attempt to be flashy, which is best given the story at hand. The production and costume design is top-notch, transporting audiences to the scene of the crimes, the rooms that Loretta and Jean worked diligently in, and the streets the strangler prowled. The attention to detail is spot on — a requirement to tell this story convincingly.
Boston Strangler offers a lot of good. It is a solid drama that centers on two women fighting against great odds to tell the truth. The film does not glorify the Boston Strangler nor does it allow for the neat and tidy resolution the police had back then to be repeated without honest scrutiny of the unresolved cases left behind. As the final credits roll, the indignation felt by Loretta throughout the movie is palpable. Ruskin gathered enough information from that era, and what was uncovered, to tell a compelling drama that stirs up strong emotions. It’s a steady, assured drama that neither cheapens nor lessens the importance of the case.
There is no happy ending, but knowing that people like Loretta and Jean existed offers a sense of hope. Journalism is vital; it is a trade often underfunded, misunderstood, and sometimes abused. However, at the heart of it, it is a means of advocating for the voiceless, and that’s what Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole did. The Boston Strangler case may not have come to the fairest conclusion, but the efforts of these brave women will hopefully continue to light a fire under those who will catch their own Boston Strangler. If that was Ruskin’s goal with this film, then he was successful.
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Boston Strangler premieres on Hulu Friday, March 17. It is 112 minutes long and rated R for some violent content and language.