More a Hollow Imitation Than a Feature Film
Mar 17, 2023
True crime, in all its forms, has held a firm grip on viewers, listeners, and readers alike for decades. But with the rise of streamers and podcasts, it’s been taken to a whole new level. Movies about serial killers in their youth, and then a Netflix series about that same killer and the beginning of his years-long killing spree. We just can’t get enough of murderers it seems! They’ve moved mostly over to television, be it a dramatized miniseries or docudrama. Serial killer movies were all the rage a couple of years ago, but nowadays, they’re not as easy to come by. So, hearing that the Boston Strangler got the movie treatment instead of TV was a nice surprise. Nice until around 15 minutes into the film.
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Hulu’s Boston Strangler follows the real-life story of how two female journalists led the investigation into a crazed serial killer who murdered multiple women by strangulation in Boston in the 1960s. Loretta McLaughlin, played here by Keira Knightley, is a mother of three and happily married. Despite keeping a close eye on crimes in the city and hoping to report on them, sexism is rife at the Record American newspaper. Loretta and every other woman at the paper are shunned to lifestyle – where Loretta gets to review the new toaster everyone is talking about! The only woman who seems to be allowed to report on more serious happenings is Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), who has years of experience on Loretta. When Loretta makes a connection between three murdered women, her boss decides to take a chance on her and has her write it up. Soon, Jean and Loretta are leading the press investigation into one of the most heinous murderers in Boston’s history.
Image via 20th Century
The film very much evokes David Fincher’s (in my opinion, sorry Fight Club bros) magnum opus, Zodiac. Boston Strangler would have been a believable 2008 release as it feels like one of those copycat films made a year after a major hit. The grim greyish filter, the equal focus on the journalist’s home life and their reporting. It all calls back to Zodiac and Robert Graysmith’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) descent into madness to find some answers about the Zodiac killer. But, there is no David Fincher here. Instead, we have Matt Ruskin (Crown Heights), who directed and wrote the film. I don’t want to compare a relatively young director to one of the greatest in the world, but Ruskin fails to breathe any life or creativity into this paint-by-numbers movie. The script is embarrassingly simple, sometimes making it feel like a reconstruction from one of those overly apt-named channels your Nana watches (my one is obsessed with “Alibi”). This is most noticeable in the scenes of the actual attacks. The close-ups of a choking victim cheapen the film, and yet, add no real sense of fear or tension.
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The editing is extremely curt. No scene goes on for longer than three minutes. The film is so obsessed with packing in as much information as it can, it throws all characterization, tension, and narrative structure out the window. When it’s meant to be scary or tense, it employs such basic techniques like the camera following the victim as they get something in the other room and when they come back, there’s the killer (!) or a noise made but it’s just Loretta’s son. Again, if this came out in 2008, it might have been more impressive. But every attempt to elevate the film from a straightforward account of events into something more cinematic utterly fails.
The script makes the film feel incredibly cheap despite its streamer budget and star-studded cast. 15 minutes in, we get a “Nice work, kid” resembling an SNL skit more than a compelling true crime drama. Every scene ends abruptly, most times with a question that we so desperately want answered, but the film doesn’t know how to pace itself, so we’re just left with these abrupt moments of dialogue. As mentioned before, we are absolutely inundated with mystery stories across all different kinds of mediums. With its overly primitive script, Boston Strangler might have been considered compelling a few years ago. But now, we’ve seen it all before, so you have to come up with new and fresh ways to approach a real story. And Boston Strangler simply doesn’t rise to the challenge.
Image Via Hulu
Even two of the most established actors working today can’t salvage the shoddy script. Keira Knightley has always been comfortable in historic drama, whether it’s as the lead or as a scene-stealing supporting role (The Imitation Game, to name one). She does her best with what she’s given, but that’s not a whole lot. In these kinds of films, a personal subplot for the protagonist is always needed to up the ante. Loretta isn’t just tracking down a crazed killer, but she’s also having to reckon with being a working mom in an era when that wasn’t widely accepted. It would be compelling if it didn’t take such a paint-by-numbers approach (that could be said for every element of the film). The scenes between Loretta and her husband feel so derivative of films before it that it hinders any opportunity for the audience to connect with Loretta on a deeper level. Knightley is strong, but she’s always strong and this by no means stands out from her incredibly impressive body of work. If you want to see a really thrilling movie where Knightley has to walk the line between work and personal life, check out Official Secrets.
Ditto Carrie Coon. Whether she’s supporting a Fincher mystery or leading a Netflix one, she is one of TV and cinema’s most underrated actresses working today. She has wit, fantastic comedic timing, and is able to imbue her characters with a grounded selflessness that makes her perfect for stories like these. Jean is a seasoned badass who has worked hard for her position. Her practical headstrong personality is a nice contrast to Loretta’s overzealous naivety and then, optimism, but again – the script doesn’t make it anything more than that. The characters get lost in all the chaos and build up to a grand reveal (even though there isn’t really one). These two women made history, spearheading one of the biggest journalistic investigations in the country when women were relegated to writing about teapots and lipstick. These giant figures deserve better characterization, especially when being played by such talented performers.
It’s clear that Boston Strangler so desperately wanted to copy the recipe for Zodiac and bought all the same ingredients. The cuts to the actual murders, always hiding the face of the killer, and the grey filter to emphasize the lack of humanity in this world where a serial killer commits these heinous crimes. The wide-eyed reporter who lets their obsession get in the way of their family life paired with a devil-may-care expert. Boston Strangler had time to come up with refreshing ways to tell a serial killer story, but unfortunately grounded himself too much in the shadow of David Fincher, and it’s still there. But at the same time, it’s an interesting story if you hadn’t heard it already, so by all means pop it on on a rainy Sunday.
Boston Strangler is available to stream on Hulu starting March 17.
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