Synopsis – Loretta McLaughlin was the reporter who first connected the murders and broke the story of the Boston Strangler. She and Jean Cole challenged the sexism of the early 1960s to report on the city’s most notorious serial killer.
My Take – True crime has been all the rage for a while now. With every streaming service seemingly tripping over themselves to get the next serial killer mini-series out the door, whether in dramatic or documentary form.
This latest Hulu release adds to the ever growing list, but particularly standing out for focusing on the Boston Strangler, a serial killer who holds a place in history alongside other notorious killers such as Jack the Ripper and the Zodiac. Mainly as those unsolved cases, there remains much doubt about the true identity of the serial killer, particularly whether he was, in fact, just one person.
A confession for all 13 murders were secured from one Albert DeSalvo, but with forensic evidence linking him to only the last victim, twelve murders continue to remain unsolved with a lot of question marks surrounding the case. Hence, not many films have been made on the true story. Just four years after the DeSalvo conviction, Tony Curtis famously played him in a 1968 film with Henry Fonda playing the chief detective who came to fame for obtaining DeSalvo‘s confession.
However here, writer-director Matt Ruskin (Crown Heights) takes a compelling look at infamous murder spree through the lens of of two female reporters, more specifically from the point of view of real life reporter Loretta McLaughlin, who broke the story for the Boston Record American. Resulting in an interesting hodgepodge that may not be as unnervingly disturbing as some true crime thrillers, or as emotionally melodramatic as others, but one that certainly works on its own.
Sure, the screenplay is formulaic and familiar, yet, it deserves praise for being a patient, sensitive, and a dark moody journalism film, one that is also interested in exploring the sexism faced by women journalists of the era. To those who appreciate the true crime genre, this film should be satisfactory, a solid streaming product that is interesting, responsible, well-performed and makes good use of its various pieces and the lingering theories that still haunt this case.
Beginning in 1965 and then heading back to 1962, the story follows Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley), a married mother of three, who has been languishing on the lifestyle desk at the Record American. She wants to cover hard news, but her editor, Jack MacLaine (Chris Cooper), isn’t interested. With no mentor or clear pathway for professional advancement, she’s left to passive-aggressively post, on a newsroom bulletin board, clipped articles from other papers who’ve scooped her and her colleagues.
Eventually, Loretta argues her way into covering a string of unsolved local murders on her own time. When she confirms certain shared details, the connected nature of the killings launches a media frenzy. And as more murders occur, Loretta is paired with Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), who has been writing investigative pieces for the publication for a while now.
Together, they christen the killer ‘The Boston Strangler’, seek out police sources such as the homicide detective working the case Jim Conley (Alessandro Nivola), and identify a number of suspects and connected parties, including Albert DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian), Daniel Marsh (Ryan Winkles) and George Nassar (Greg Vrotsos).
Modeled on great journalism flicks like Zodiac (2007) and Spotlight (2015), though it doesn’t quite reach those heights, the film barely scratches the surface of the Boston Strangler murders, and of the man we have always considered to be the Strangler. Where the 1968 film brought us mostly a fictional version of DeSalvo, this film gives us almost nothing about the man at all. It’s a wise choice both tone wise and narrative wise, as it is not entirely clear exactly who carried out all of the murders, with many theorizing it was multiple different killers.
Here, director Ruskin presents the facts as they are understood while acknowledging the degree to which they’re still undiscovered, keeping the suspense of the film centered around the constant uncertainty regarding the truth and who doesn’t want to see it come to light. He has penned a screenplay that gives a shrewd perspective on the serial killer of the title from the perspective of the reporter who connected the pieces and broke the story, and her colleagues who joined her in effectively leading the investigation.
She and Jean don’t just face discrimination in the field and from readers but also from colleagues and supervisors, although Jack has a habit of eventually doing right by them. The film also deals with Loretta and Jean Cole’s personal lives, with more focus on the former, whose initially supportive husband, James (Morgan Spector), grows increasingly tired and fed up with her tirelessly working around the clock rather than spending more time at home.
Yes, the film could have delved deeper into the subject matter beyond the reporters’ investigative journalism approach. As writer-director Ruskin seems more content with playing safe and rigid in his surface-level storytelling. This, in turn, tends to make the film severely lacking morbid the necessary fear, suspense and dramatic tension required considering the subject matter.
Nevertheless, on a technical level, he delivers well. Cinematographer Ben Kutchins contributes engaging work. The overall technical sides, covering from the suitably drab production design to the 1960s period-appropriate costume design using lots of muted colors and textures, are spot-on.
Director Ruskin also brings out the best from his cast, beginning with Keira Knightley’s engaging lead turn. Anyone picking on her accent really missed the entire point, I had no problems with her accent and found she put in an excellent portrayal. Though she’s not put to much use here, Carrie Coon manages to be great.
In supporting roles, Chris Cooper, Alessandro Nivola, Morgan Spector, Rory Cochrane, Bill Camp, David Dastmalchian, Ryan Winkles, Greg Vrotsos, Ivan Martin, Jon Lindstorm, Kris Sidberry, Mellanie Hubert and Robert John Burke are effective. On the whole, ‘Boston Strangler’ is a engaging journalism period piece backed by solid acting and an unsettling premise.
Directed – Matt Ruskin
Starring – Keira Knightley, Carrie Coon, Chris Cooper
Rated – R
Run Time – 112 minutes