Matt Ruskin’s Boston Strangler is part true-crime thriller, part celebration of the in’s and out’s of old-school investigative journalism, and part drama about the difficulties of being a working woman at the dawn of second-wave feminism. The story takes place in the mid-1960s against the backdrop of a series of rape-murders taking place primarily in and around Boston, a case that flummoxed police detectives and turned into a public-relations nightmare as the city was gripped with fear that the authorities were helpless to alleviate.
Enter Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightly), a reporter at Boston’s Record American who aspires beyond her appointed role at the lifestyle desk, where she is giving such scintillating assignments as reviewing a new toaster. She manages to convince her hardened, skeptical editor, Jack Maclaine (Chris Cooper), to let her look into a trio of murders that she determines are linked and likely the work of a single individual, which puts her at odds with the police because her investigation reveals how little they have accomplished. Jack teams Loretta with Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), a seasoned investigative reporter who has connections with the police that accelerates their investigation even as the murders keep piling up. Various suspects emerge, particularly Albert DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian), who admits to the murders, but with noted guidance from his interrogator that is more than enough to sow doubt in the veracity of his confession. The police (and the city at large) are all too eager to pin it on DeSalvo and be done with the whole sordid affair.
Because Loretta is a wife and mother with a full-time career at a time when women working outside the home was still a contentious issue, she must clear hurdles that a man in her position would never have to consider. While her husband, James (Morgan Spector), is initially supportive of her career ambitions and (then) unconventional approach to family, the long days, long nights, and constant calls that pull her away at inopportune moments (including a New Year’s Eve dinner) eventually begin to wear on him, his patience, and his understanding. Within the workplace, she faces even more hurdles, as the world in which she moves (journalism and the police) is not only entirely male-dominated, but surging with barely veiled resentment at her presence. This is illustrated early on when she gets a scoop by getting pertinent information about a murder from a police officer who is off-duty at a bar, after which she is immediately accused of having gotten the information by flirting and failing to identify herself as a reporter, neither of which is true. That doesn’t stop the accusation from flying or Jack from initially assuming the worst. Jean, who has already spent years dealing with such issues, is more hardened and realistic, but we still sense that it gets to her, especially when the paper exploits the novelty of two female reporters working on a serial killer story, which puts them and their families at risk.
Ruskin, who wrote and directed the film, has a penchant for true-life crime stories. His previous directorial effort, Crown Heights (2017), was based on the true story of a wrongfully convicted man, and he co-produced Brad Furman’s The Infiltrator (2016) about an undercover U.S. Customs agent who spent years infiltrating the world of corrupt banking and money laundering to disrupt the flow of money and drugs from South American drug lords. In Boston Strangler, Ruskin creates a palpable sense of time and place, evoking the myriad details of Johnson-era America gripped by fears of violence (it’s a world of smoldering cigarettes, corded phones, and bustling offices). The film’s depiction of sexism is blunt, but never preachy or didactic, and the performances by Knightley and Coon ground their characters’ actions in a stark reality of inequality.
If Boston Strangler has a primary flaw, it is the way it constantly invites comparisons to David Fincher’s superior Zodiac (2007). Both are films set in the 1960s that center on the investigation of a notorious serial killer by an unlikely newspaper employee, with multiple leads, dead ends, and frustrations along the way. Ruskin and cinematographer Ben Kutchins, who previously worked together on Crown Heights, ape the sickly greenish hue of Fincher’s film and replicate his penchant for slow tracking shots, brooding atmosphere, and shallow focus. And, if that weren’t enough, Ruskin even mimics the article-less title. It is as if he is daring us to compare the two films, which really isn’t in his best interest since Boston Strangler is gripping enough in its own right.
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Overall Rating: (3)
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