Boston Strangler

It’s getting harder and harder to make a great movie about the hunt for a serial killer. The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en raised the bar so high that most subsequent films can’t get over it. Boston Strangler exemplifies this fact. Once upon a time, it might have seemed like a nail-biting thriller. Most things about it come up short when compared to those classics, though, so it ends up feeling underwhelming, despite strong central performances.

Based on a true story, the movie stars Keira Knightley as Loretta McLaughlin, a newspaper employee relegated by boss Jack Maclaine (Chris Cooper) to writing about “women’s issues,” such as whether new appliances are any good. She yearns to be an investigative reporter like the men on staff, even scrutinizing the stories they write for inspiration. Loretta ends up finding something her male coworkers missed – an apparent connection between several female strangulation victims. After begging Jack to let her dig into her theory, he acquiesces, but only if she agrees to work with a more veteran female reporter, Jean Cole (Carrie Coon).

From there, Boston Strangler details how the women are stonewalled by cops because of their gender, how they get help from a sympathetic detective (Alessandra Nivola), and how they doggedly chase down leads. The trail ultimately points to a guy named Albert DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian). Looking into him brings more questions than it does answers.

Perhaps the best comparison here is to David Fincher’s Zodiac, another classic in the serial killer subgenre. Both films are about reporters who become obsessed with figuring out the identity of an elusive psychopath. That one is taut and suspenseful, digging deep into the psychological toll not solving the mystery quickly enough takes on the characters. Fincher allows scenes to linger, creating the sensation that the Zodiac Killer is, in a sense, hunting them, too, albeit in a different manner. The approach builds a queasy vibe that gets under your skin, leaving you rattled.

Boston Strangler, in contrast, is similar to reading a Wikipedia entry about the search for a killer. The details themselves are certainly interesting. The way writer/director Matt Ruskin assembles them is what’s shaky. Many of the film’s scenes are very short, present solely to convey a specific piece of information before yielding to the next short scene that conveys another specific piece of information, and so on. That “fact, fact, fact” structure suffocates the story a little bit, preventing us from fully feeling the internal pressure Loretta and Jean are putting on themselves to pinpoint the psycho before he strikes again. In other words, you get a decent overview of the case, you just don’t get that nerve-rattling quality similar pictures have created.

What the movie does offer, aside from the appeal of learning how these women carried out their important investigation while breaking down gender barriers, is a pair of skillful performances. Keira Knightley is excellent as Loretta, nicely conveying her dogged personality. She’s dropped into a predictable subplot about Loretta’s husband going from supportive to disapproving, yet she continually makes the character’s determination palpable for the viewer. On her end, Carrie Coon effectively infuses Jean with a dose of cynicism toward systems of journalism and law enforcement that keep women at arm’s length. The actresses are dynamic together, even during times when the material rushes itself.

To a degree, Boston Strangler gets by on the strength of their work and the inherent fascination of the material. It’s the kind of thing that you won’t necessarily mind when you’re in the mood to stream something at home on a lazy evening. The movie does, however, lack the power of other, similar pictures. Instead of theaters, it debuts on Hulu, which seems appropriate. If you spent ten bucks to see the film, you’d likely be disappointed. Watch it as part of your streaming subscription and you can semi-pleasantly kill two hours.

out of four

Boston Strangler is rated R for some violent content and language. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.