A film review by Craig J. Koban March 28, 2023

BOSTON STRANGLER  j
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2023, R, 112 mins.

Keira Knightley as Loretta McLaughlin  /  Carrie Coon as Jean Cole  /  Chris Cooper as Jack Maclaine  /  Alessandro Nivola as Detective Conley  /  Rory Cochrane as Detective Deline  /  David Dastmalchian as Albert DeSalvo  /  Peter Gerety as Eddie Corsetti  /  Robert John Burke as Eddie Holland  /  Ryan Winkles as Daniel Marsh  /  Morgan Spector as James McLaughlin  /  Bill Camp as Commissioner McNamara  /  Owen Burke as Officer Shanley

Written and directed by Matt Ruskin
 

 

 

BOSTON STRANGLER is a new historical crime thriller that delves into one of the most frightening mass murder sprees in U.S. history and the saga of two female journalists trying to crack the case.  

Of course, the film takes its name from the fact-based perpetrator of the killing of thirteen women in the Greater Boston area in the early 60s, who managed to use various nefarious means to get his victims to allow him into their respective homes.  Between June of 1962 and January of 1964, this madman had his way with women ranging from 19 to 85-years-old, and many police authorities believed that the Strangler was one man working alone (equally unsettling is that no sign of forced entry was used as well, leading to ample and justified paranoia for Bostonians of the time).  Two investigative reporters - Jean Cole and Loretta McLaughlin, working for the Record America - wrote a four-part series about this deranged killer.  BOSTON STRANGLER is a chronicle of the origins of their collaboration and its aftermath.   

The story of all of this is a worthy one, especially when it comes to dealing with dicey newspaper politics of the era, not to mention how these reporters faced unfair power dynamics based on their gender (they were, after all, working within a larger male-dominated base without many female reporters covering something as sizable as the murder in question, so they faced a large uphill battle from the start to gain some much needed respect from their peers and employers for their efforts).  BOSTON STRANGLER is also impeccably well cast, with Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon playing McLaughlin and Cole respectively, and both bring their relative A-game to the proceedings.  Most of the pieces are in play here to make for a compelling film, from strong leading ladies to its fascinating true crime case that has become the stuff of chilling legend to its relevant and timely narrative of career-minded women trying to get their foot in the door and their field in order to get noticed.  BOSTON STRANGLER should have been a proverbial home run as far as genre exercises go, but writer/director Matt Ruskin's obvious and derivative choices here (taking a page of David Fincher's aesthetic playbook) don't do his film any favors, not to mention that the end result just fails to register with any sizeable intensity or lingering power.  The film is workmanlike in approach and execution, but feels like a carbon copy of a copy of similar crime thrillers of the past, and far better ones at that. 

The film is set in 1962 as we're introduced to Loretta, a lowly journalist working for the Record American, who seems to be given nothing but uninspired puff pieces instead of real gritty stories that matter to the public.  Working at the lifestyle desk gives her very little in the way of career advancement, and her attempts to juggle work with her home life as a mother and wife are beset with stresses as well.  Her whole world changes quickly when she gets wind of a mysterious new killer in the Boston area that has been targeting women, and the more she initially digs into each murder, the more alarming commonalities she finds with them all (the dead all had stockings ritualistically tied around their necks).  Her potential story into this unknown killer angers members of the Boston PD along with her editor, Jack MacLaine (Chris Cooper, well cast), with the latter deciding to kill the story altogether.  Unfortunately and tragically, another victim is found, which prompts Jack to allow Loretta to move forward, partnering her with a seasoned investigative reporter in Jean to pool their talents to get quicker results.  Their tireless search for the truth begins to become an obsession for the pair, especially Loretta, who begins to see her already fractured relationship with her husband being taken to the breaking point.  On top of that, the women reporters continue to face unfair scrutiny from law enforcement on top of putting them on the radar of the killer himself.  Slowly, but surely, suspects are narrowed down to the point when nailing down the actual man responsible seems cut and dry, but roadblocks and setbacks of various kinds impede Jean and Loretta's progress.  In the meantime, more attacks and murders continued, leaving many residents feeling scared and defenseless.     

 

 

The things that stood out to me the most in BOSTON STRANGLER were not so much the actual tale of the titular killer's nightmarish spree or the film's recreation of them, but rather the more intrinsically enthralling story of these two reporters that battled adversity on their journey to solve this baffling and unnerving case.  Loretta, in particular, is shown early on in the film as a professional-minded, but deeply unsatisfied reporter that's reduced to doing toaster reviews for her paper or any other profile that seemed gender skewed for what society of the time felt was right for women to cover.  Early reporting efforts about the Strangler enraged what is revealed to be fairly ineffectual elements of local law enforcement, and compounded on top of that is - as mentioned earlier - is a skewed playing field for male and female reporters at this time, leading to an office culture that seemed instantly dismissive of anything these women were trying to accomplish.  The central stomach churning horrors of this case, no doubt, rocked many women (and Jean and Loretta) to their cores, but you also gain a sense that there existed an empowered sense of journalistic responsibility and duty from these reporters to uncover why so many other women were being so easily killed and how this lunatic had eluded police capture for so long.  From the onset, it's easy to see what a deeply personal story this is to both Loretta and Jean, and part of the driving thrust of interest in BOSTON STRANGLER is their diligent attempts to get answers.

Knightley and Coon are so effortlessly poised together, and they do - for the most part - carry a large bulk of this film on their shoulders.  Knightley in particular has this innate ability to headline so many different types of period pieces with relative ease, and here she conveys Loretta's courage and ruthless determination to get to the bottom of this hellish whodunit case.  And her partner in crime (no pun intended) in Coon is equally assured, evoking in Jean a tough and no-nonsense edge that makes her union with Loretta work so fluidly.  Neither of these characters ever waiver when it comes to dealing with the rampant workplace sexism of the era or a series of interview subjects that sometimes find it hard to take them seriously.  BOSTON STRANGLER is at its best when it serves as a tribute to these strong-willed women; it's a sobering spotlight on how intrepid investigative journalism can lead to fundamental real world change.  Jean and Loretta's work led to the police zeroing in on Albert DeSalvo as a suspect, based on his confession and evidence linking him to the final victim, which culminated in a conviction.  In 1967, DeSalvo was imprisoned for life for committing a series of rapes.  However, his murder confession has been disputed and debate continues as to which crimes he actually committed.  In 2013, DNA evidence proved with 99 per cent accuracy that he did kill at least one of the thirteen victims, but doubts have lingered as to whether he committed all of the Boston Strangler homicides, which cannot be conclusively proven to this day.   

For as well realized as Jean and Loretta are in BOSTON STRANGLER, the film seems littered with a lot of other side players that don't seem as fleshed out.  Cooper is one of our greatest actors, but he seems to be playing the type of stereotypical newspaper editor that have riddled so many countless other films in the past that I was kind of left asking why they'd bother to get a man of his considerable talents with a less-than-meaty role.  There are a handful of other characters - from certain Boston cops to the Boston Police Commissioner to even some of the suspects - that pop into the film, then disappear, and then pop back in when required.  Perhaps one of the more distracting characters is Loretta's husband (Morgan Specter), who is so one-note as a self-centered, finger-pointing spouse that he's no better than just about every other flimsily handled grieving wife character that has dominated crime fiction before.  There's so little time denoted to Loretta's relationship with this man that it all comes across like a hasty afterthought in the resulting film.  The scenes involving husband and wife are so disappointingly cookie cutter that it proves to take away from the good scenes of Loretta on the go with Jean in their investigative pursuits.

The most glaring issue with BOSTON STRANGLER is that it tastes like a Diet Coke version of a David Fincher production throughout - it tries to pass itself off as the real, full calorie option, but seems more flat and flavorless.  Ruskin has clearly opted to mime Fincher's stylistic playbook here with a dark and ominous color palette and moody cinematography, but the main problem here is that Ruskin doesn't direct his picture with the flair of Fincher in most respects, leaving much of BOSTON STRANGLER so dreary, drab, and visually lackluster as a result.  There is a precedent for filmmakers tackling real life tales of horrific killing sprees using foreboding noir sensibilities (just look at what Fincher brought SEVEN and his most underrated crime thriller epic ZODIAC, which bares the most historical relevance to BOSTON STRANGER).  Riskin seems so enamored with pilfering out of Fincher's playbook that he never gives his own film a stunning sense of visual identity that separates itself apart from the better competition.  Clearly, the case of The Boston Strangler doesn't lend itself to a bright and colorful atmosphere and mood (far from that), but many of Ruskin's scenes are so dully lit, so somber in mood, and eye strainingly murky that they just sit flatly on screen and don't display much artistic innovation.     

When it boils right down to it, BOSTON STRANGLER isn't anywhere near as gripping and intense as it desperately needed to be.  These reporters and their journey deserve respect and praise; their story should be told.  Alas, the overall film built around them is oddly cold, inert and lacking in a truly horrifying pulse of intrigue.  That, and trying to cram the multiple years and time jumping events in the film into a too-short-for-its-own-good 112 minutes leaves BOSTON STRANGLER too undernourished overall (either the makers could have benefited from a longer running time or, hell, maybe this whole story could have been given true justice in a long form mini-series).  Ruskin wisely understands that the emotional and enthralling core of his film are Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole themselves, and as a piece that honors these real life women's diligent work, this is a commendable effort.  It's just too bad that BOSTON STRANGLER ultimately emerges as too slight overall to deserve to be in the spotlight of so many other worthy and superb crime dramas.  It's also not a good sign when you think about how much better (and nervier and edgy) this film could have been with...maybe...Fincher leading the charge. 

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