Boston Strangler Review: Keira Knightley Serial Killer Drama Chokes on Sexism Commentary

The infamous Boston Strangler killed more than 11 single women between the ages of 19 and 85 in the greater Boston area between 1962 and 1964. A 1968 film starring Tony Curtis captured that reign of terror, but it took over half a century to tell the true story of the female reporters who uncovered the case.

Matt Ruskin’s “Boston Strangler,” starring Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon, doesn’t hold back on the facts, nor does it dress them up with portrayals of violence to which true crime addicts are so accustomed. Instead, the writer-director gets right to the point and follows the rules of news journalism: Keep the lede direct, the triangle inverted, and limit foreplay.

And that’s what the most haunting realization of “Boston Strangler” is: We are looking for the sex in it, the presentation of facts as fiction, and the horrors represented onscreen. But the most graphic moment we see comes 38 minutes into the film; the most salacious element is a headline that Boston is plagued by an “orgy of murders.” But why are we conditioned to expect reenactments of the unspeakable?

When Ryan Murphy’s “Dahmer” is ridiculed by the victims’ families and the attractiveness of murderers is flippantly dissected in pop culture, it’s films like Ruskin’s that seem to carry the burden of presenting the plain and simple truth…without seeming too plain or simple. Ruskin’s “Boston Strangler” focuses on the heroes of the story: Not the police officers bogged down by murky bureaucratic red tape, but rather the investigative reporters Loretta McLaughlin (Knightley) and Jean Cole (Coon) who helped define the case in the news.

Both Loretta and Jean work for the Record-American newspaper. Loretta is, at first, stuck penning product reviews of new home appliances in the Lifestyle section, while Jean is working on an undercover piece about nursing home abuse. Loretta connects a string of murders as the work of a budding serial killer, but her editor (Bill Camp) shoots down her story since the dead women were “nobodies.”

Loretta is later met with allegations that police officers were just “gossiping” in an effort to sleep with her and that the reported facts are merely rumors conjured to “bed” Loretta. The “stunt” of putting two female reporters on the story eventually works in their favor, though, as female witnesses and neighbors seem to be more comfortable speaking on the record.

This is really Loretta’s story, though, one where she frets about her paycheck going to the babysitter as her husband (Morgan Spector) encourages her to pursue her dreams — and the dangerous story at hand. (Spoiler: His support doesn’t last long, and the couple eventually divorced in real life.)

Separately, Jean is more of a mentor and guiding light for Loretta than reporting partner onscreen. Jean’s appearances are mostly alongside Loretta, bonding at a bar over smokes and predetermined career paths for women of that era. Loretta is the one captured in a noir-esque shot design, with Knightley looking up at an apartment of a murdered woman from under a lamppost, missing just the trenchcoat. She’s a woman on a mission, with a notepad and pen instead of a gun and a badge.

Loretta forges a relationship with a detective (Alessandro Nivola, continuing his period mastery post-“Many Saints of Newark” with a convincing Boston accent) who aids her intel. The lack of shared evidence and general communication between Cambridge PD and Boston cops emphasizes the film — and real-life case — as more of an indictment of the territorial nature of men in power than just negligence.

Yet there is no tidy way to end this film, in part because the case itself remains so murky at the time. Albert DeSalvo — played here by David Dastmalchian — confessed to the crimes, but mysteriously died in prison before being charged. In the film, his cellmates allege the confession was rehearsed as a ploy for Albert to gain notoriety and fame through a book deal, with his jail pals splitting the reward money.

The terrifying ambiguity of the case isn’t explored as thoroughly as it should have been. Did Boston residents use the Strangler as a cover at the time to kill women without consequence? “Nobody bothered to get to the truth,” the film concludes. Ruskin’s “Boston Strangler” tries, but to what end? “Boston Strangler” loosely cites how the media helped create the serial killer “myth” and, in turn, popularize and mythologize killers. But is that the takeaway here? Not quite.

The “female gaze” does not invert the male gaze when it comes to its portrayals of women’s bodies in “Boston Strangler” (again, no fragmenting or sexualized scenes of any kind). Instead, it just doesn’t show them at all. The victims are not seen; it is only their surviving loved ones that are onscreen. The murders are only heard as the camera focuses on bottles of milk on the counter or a bathtub faucet. These sequences are audibly voyeuristic, like listening to your neighbor when you know you shouldn’t. It’s somehow more uncomfortable and even more intimate than watching the killing.

Writer-director Ruskin previously told IndieWire that films like “Good Night and Good Luck,” “Zodiac,” and “All the Presidents’ Men” directly influenced his direction, particularly how to photograph the newsroom. Ruskin spent over a year researching the Boston Strangler and reporters Cole and McLaughlin before writing the script.

“Telling a story about a journalist who is committed to getting to the truth feels very worthwhile right now,” Ruskin said. “On a personal level, I was really inspired by Loretta and her commitment to living the life that she wanted to live and doing the work that she wanted to do even if it meant challenging the norms of the era. I found that to be very inspiring and in many ways, timeless.”

It’s perhaps that intentional timelessness that makes “Boston Strangler” feel unsatisfying, or even unoriginal. The stifled quietness of “Strangler” leaves us wanting more, for better or for worse.

Rating: B-

“Boston Strangler” starts streaming on Hulu on Friday, March 17.

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