A Fascinating, Formulaic Investigative Journalism Thriller Starring Keira Knightley & Carrie Coon

Mar 17, 2023

From the opening moments of “Boston Strangler,” writer and director Matt Ruskin makes it clear he’s thought through exactly how he wants to depict the true crime at the heart of the film. The camera refracts a killing off the surface of a television, sparing the gruesome sight of strangulation as the titular troublemaker strikes once again. It’s staged to avoid sensationalism or additional salaciousness at the expense of the victims — or the benefit of would-be copycats. (The latter element might seem unimportant, but late-breaking developments in the film do clarify why that’s necessary.)
Then, of course, the strangler turns on the television set for an on-the-nose needle drop. “Nowhere to run,” intones Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, “nowhere to hide.” There’s naturally somewhere to hide in Boston, a city cinema that has taught viewers to understand as a town of pious people whose misguided blind faith helps institutions harbor predators and criminals. The global and local implications of the Boston Strangler’s reign of hushed horror — and its necessary exposure by scrappy journalists – naturally recalls Best Picture winner “Spotlight.” Ruskin does not cower from the comparison. Within the film lies a tacit acknowledgment that its audience has seen many films like it before … and will proceed regardless.
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The entire film has an air of familiarity, even down to the casting of the two reporters who break open the case at the Record-American newspaper in the mid-1960s. Keira Knightley broke open a major scandal on-screen before in “Official Secrets.” At the same time, Carrie Coon played a Washington Post editor among the ensemble of the Pentagon Papers saga “The Post.” Somehow, the story feels played out already – and yet Ruskin ensures it’s never a rote exercise in true crime. No one feels like they are going through the motions.
As the genre’s recent boom times reveal, these narratives are ready-made for consumption because they follow an easy template for thrills. The crimes lend a built-in inciting incident with the investigation providing the subsequent rising action. “Boston Strangler” follows the formula to a T as Knightley’s Loretta McLaughlin pursues the truth behind the terror. It sturdily satisfies as a movie, even when keeping things simple and straightforward.
However, Ruskin does find an angle to separate his film from the realm of pure procedural. “Boston Strangler” functions as something of a wish-fulfillment urtext for the recent spate of true crime produced for and about (predominantly white) women. The particularly gruesome slayings, which target single female victims from teens to the elderly who live alone, strike a chord with women in Boston more than the average serial killer. Through word of mouth, they fear facing the same fate of seeing their slain bodies desecrated and tied up with a literal bow. The situations of these victims tap into the mythological dimension of the murdered woman, a loss of innocence or besmirching of purity.
It says a lot about the chauvinistic culture of the mid-century American newsroom that this string of crimes did not immediately jump to the front page. But McLaughlin, hired as a lifestyle reporter, struggles to find an audience among her Record-American colleagues or editor Jack MacLaine (Chris Cooper) because these “nobody” women affected are not of interest. With a clever appeal to that central commandment of writing — know thy audience — she’s able to make the case that the victims meet the profile of their readership. But McLaughlin first has to cover the story in her own time outside of her regular journalistic duties.
Through her tenacious reporting in conjunction with Coon’s Jean Cole, McLaughlin begins to piece together both who might be behind the killings — and who might be running interference for them. The journalists set out looking for an individual and come away with a greater understanding of how the persistence of this serial killer, in turn, indicts institutions. What McLaughlin discovers on the job echoes a struggle she faces at home as her work in advocacy and investigation consumes her time. Patriarchal, misogynist thinking infiltrates every aspect of society. What becomes obvious in the police department is just more insidious in her own marriage.
“Boston Strangler” steps right up to the line of the hokiest girlboss tropes and narrowly avoids crossing into a cringeworthy injection of contemporary feminism into a historical narrative. Rather than blaring its priorities throughout, Ruskin’s film gradually reveals the biases suppressing the idea that women’s stories matter. It’s just enough of a twist on an otherwise imitative, iterative story to hold interest. [B]
“Boston Strangler” premieres Friday, March 17, on Hulu.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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