Boston Strangler REVIEW – Sterile & Unfocused

Not even Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon's combined talents can save this mess of a screenplay.

Boston Strangler
Boston Strangler

There’s a certain iffiness to the true crime genre when true life tragedies are adapted for entertainment. Ryan Murphy received quite a bit of backlash for his Dahmer series: the family members of the victims weren’t consulted when the show was being made, and casting an actor like Evan Peters to play Dahmer leads to viewers conflating the two and maybe even sympathizing with a man like Dahmer. With Boston Strangler, director Matt Ruskin didn’t want to glorify violence, so he chose to shift the spotlight away from the murders and focus on the journalists instead.

Boston Strangler follows Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole’s coverage of the case, played by Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon, and dives more into the systems that fail women. It’s a combination of a few films – think David Fincher’s Zodiac, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight and Maria Schrader’s She Said. The problem is, Boston Strangler is nowhere near as engaging as these other films, solely lacking the tension essential when the narrative in question is a murder mystery. There’s even a moment where Boston Strangler goes as far as to mimic a certain scene from Zodiac – you’ll know which one when you see it.

Loretta is initially working for the lifestyle beat, but manages to convince her editor to let her work on the serial killings case since she’ll do it in her free time. When she beats all the other papers to a scoop, she and Jean begin to work exclusively on the case.

As much as I love Knightley, the casting choice here is a bit of a head scratch. Knightley has done period films, but those have always been shaped with a certain modern sensibility. I mean, you can’t look at 2005’s Pride and Prejudice and consider it historically accurate. Ruskin’s film is trying to capture the mood and atmosphere of Boston in the 60s/early 70s, and she looks too modern to be a part of that setting. Truth be told, she’s not the only one. So many of the actors feel like they’re wearing costumes, and so many of the events that occur feel implausible. Loretta comes across more as a detective than a journalist by the end of the movie.

Coon fares better as Jean, the seasoned journalist who’s calm under pressure and knows how to traverse the system. It’s such a memorable performance. Until now, I remember the little touches she added, like the way she adjusted her hair before getting her photo taken, or her measured storming into the boss’ office. Coon is such an underrated actress, and I do hope she’ll get her shot at the Oscar sometime in the future.

I had high hopes for David Dastmalchian’s casting as Albert DeSalvo, but it’s basically a nothing role. I understand not wanting to glorify violence or those who perpetuate violence, but diluting it to this extent removes any sense of tension or stakes, and the victims themselves feel discarded in the grand scheme of the narrative.

We need to understand why Loretta and Jean are driven to cover this story, and what they hope to achieve by doing so. Ruskin tries to layer in some tension with the unwanted attention that comes Loretta’s way after she breaks the story: heavy-breathers over the phone, and shady strangers standing outside her house. It’s supposed to be petrifying stuff, but it’s shot with no sense of jeopardy that it comes across more as a minor annoyance than terrifying.

There are many aspects that don’t add up with regard to the Boston killings, so Boston Strangler attempts to posit a theory of its own. If only it did the proper legwork to establish what it was trying to sell to us at the end. I’m also pretty sure that’s not how journalism works.

Review screener provided.

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Boston Strangler
Matt Ruskin's Boston Strangler is an unfocused mess, unsure of the tale it's supposed to be.