‘Boston Strangler’ Review

Power to the press or paint-by-numbers?

When last we checked in with Keira Knightley (which wasn’t recent; it’s not like we just follow her career all the time), she was starring in 2019′s Official Secrets, a sort of bland based-on-a-true-story journalism movie about the US’s nefarious intro to war in the Middle East circa 2003. Therein, she played a British government worker who leaked information to the press, and this time, Knightley’s on the other side of the fence in Boston Strangler, a movie about—get this—the Boston Strangler, a purported serial killer who terrorized women in Boston the 1960s and, later maybe, in Michigan.

In Strangler, Knightley plays real-life journo Loretta McLaughlin, who, along with also-real-life journalist Jean Cole (portrayed here by Gone Girl’s Carrie Coon), dug into the enigmatic and seemingly patterned killings that gripped the Massachusetts metropolis. Contending with everything from institutional misogyny, impatient husbands, ineffective cops and so forth, McLaughlin and Cole became part of the story themselves (sadly, in a “look at this dog that can stand on its hind legs!” sort of way at first) and made enemies of the police force, but ultimately did that kind of kick-ass journalism to which we all aspire.

Writer/director Matt Ruskin (Crown Heights) helms the historical drama, and though he does delve into the ways in which women were forced to fight for a place at the table, be it at work or in society, his main focus remains on the tenacity of his subjects. Without McLaughlin and Cole, we learn, the public might have been kept in the dark much longer, and though a known Boston scumbag confessed to the crimes, launching later-disgraced attorney F. Lee Bailey into the public sphere, Strangler contends that humanity’s need for comfort often supersedes our pursuit of truth. The bulk of the Boston Strangler murders remain unsolved to this day—and many question whether the confessor, Albert DeSalvo, truly was the guy. Ruskin posits that we much prefer tying a neat bow on things to accepting there is real and ongoing evil in the world.

Knightley cuts a sympathetic enough character in her performance as McLaughlin, and her obsession becomes our own. Coon wows, though, all tough shouting and dogged reporting. Boston Strangler even manages a few truly scary moments akin to David Fincher’s Zodiac, from which this one obviously takes more than a few cues. But rather than straying from the newspaper thriller formula set down by movies like All the President’s Men, Ruskin opts to paint by numbers. This is disappointing, even if the film’s final moments are cause for conversation. Regardless, one wonders why Ruskin’s film went straight to Hulu rather than a theater near you, particularly in its brilliant cinematography from Ozark alum Ben Kutchins. Some moments look almost like Renaissance paintings, but they can’t save a middling movie. Still, it’s fun to see McLaughlin and Cole fearlessly take on the cops and it’s fun to see Knightley run around being all tough and telling people to shut up and stuff. Dang, newspapers are cool.


+Fascinating premise; cinematography

-Run-of-the-mill journo thriller

Boston Strangler

Directed by Ruskin

With Knightley and Coon

Hulu, R, 112 min.

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