By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
True crime enthusiasts will be intimately familiar with the Boston Strangler, the phantom who menaced the city during the early 1960s in the so-called “Silk Stocking Murders.” Fascination with the mystery of the phantom strangler has gripped many over the years, and has led to various adaptations of the true story, most notably the 1968 film The Boston Strangler starring Tony Curtis and Henry Fonda.
The latest take on the Boston Strangler comes from producer Ridley Scott and writer/director Matt Ruskin, best known for his work on the independent biographical crime film Crown Heights. Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean) plays Loretta McLaughlin, a reporter who broke the story of the strangler amidst pressure from the police department, her employers, and her family. Knightley is joined by Carrie Coon (The Leftovers) as Jean Cole, a reporter who joins forces with Knightley’s character to investigate the grisly murders haunting the city of Boston.
Boston Strangler is partly a murder mystery, partly a commentary on police corruption, and partly a commentary on the struggles women face when balancing their career aspirations with society’s maternal and familial expectations for them.
As a murder mystery, Boston Strangler unfolds in conventional, yet entertaining fashion. Indeed, more broadly, this is not a film with grand ambitions to remake the murder mystery or true crime genre. Instead, Ruskin opts for an approachable, albeit standard story. Keira Knightley’s Loretta McLaughlin and Carrie Coon’s Jean Cole spend much of the film hunting down leads and interviewing suspects and police as they break the news on the Boston Strangler to a terrified public, all while bringing the audience along for this investigation. The film fluctuates its focus from one suspect to the next, all the while doing a most effective job conveying the grandness and severity of the Boston Strangler in the 1960s. Regarding how the mystery unfolds, Ruskin’s film is particularly timely given various revelations about the case of the Boston Strangler in the last 10 years. Unfortunately, the approach to these more recent developments is stuttered, making for a disappointing resolution to a solid investigative tale.
While the murder mystery at the heart of this film will retain attention, it’s with the exploration of more nuanced themes and social commentary that Boston Strangler most excels. When the audience is introduced to Loretta McLaughlin, she is a reporter desperate to write about the crime in the city of Boston. Instead, her boss Jack Maclaine (played by Chris Cooper) puts Loretta and other women reporters on more mundane, domestic stories. Loretta, for instance, is initially tasked with writing a piece about the effectiveness of a new toaster. Soon, however, Loretta’s ambition is met by the confidence of Carrie Coon’s Jean Cole, a more seasoned reporter who regularly takes undercover assignments. Together, the two women defy expectations and become celebrities in their own right as they expose the case of the Boston Strangler. In doing so, Ruskin’s film explores a number of interesting topics, including the difficulties women faced (and continue to face) trying to balance career aspirations with societal expectations. Loretta is driven and ambitious, determined to investigate every lingering lead of the Boston Strangler case. But, Loretta has three children and a husband and struggles to manage her different roles as reporter, mother, and wife. It’s a theme that resonates more broadly than Loretta McLaughlin and Boston Strangler, and one that adds depth to an otherwise largely conventional true crime drama.
In the midst of their investigation, Loretta and Jean uncover evidence about how the police department’s inadequacies greatly hindered the resolution of the Boston Strangler case. This plot line intersects with Alessandro Nivola’s Detective Conley character, and disturbingly highlights a feature of many similar true crime documentaries and features – that the police tasked with solving crimes often perform their job poorly and prevent justice from being served. Similar to the murder mystery at the core of this film, its exploration of the role of the police department in this crime saga isn’t particularly novel or groundbreaking, but it is effective in retaining interest and leaving an impression felt more broadly than the case at hand.
Boston Strangler, the latest adaptation of the true crime saga from the early 1960s, is equal parts a murder mystery, a commentary on women’s conflicting roles in the workplace and domestically, and an exploration of police corruption and inadequacy. The murder mystery serving as the film’s backbone is effectively told and captures the gravity and severity of the Boston Strangler, although it plays rather conventionally and resolves in somewhat disappointing fashion. The film has a lot to say about the role of police in such investigations and the difficulties women faced and continue to face in balancing career aspirations with societal expectations, topics that aren’t particularly novel, but captivate in their own right here. In this sense, Boston Strangler will retain the interest of true crime enthusiasts and effectively executes on three different, yet compatible fronts. Unfortunately, effective does not necessarily mean novel, meaning Boston Strangler may entertain but does not remake the true crime drama in a unique manner.
Boston Strangler streams March 17th on Hulu.