Chronicling the events revolving around the killings that sent waves of terror across the city of Boston during the early 1960s, Matt Ruskin's Boston Strangler offers an oversight of the politics surrounding the case through the lens of its media coverage at the time. The final result can be categorized both under the true crime genre and the journalist procedural drama, following the tradition of movies such as Tom McCarthy's Spotlight and the more recent She Said, an examination on the beginnings of the #MeToo movement in showbusiness. However, I believe that Ruskin, who is the director and screenwriter, aspired to create a film that could be compared with the capstone of the, freshly-coined term, "newspaper noir" which is none else than David Fincher's 2007 Zodiac, a production that shares almost identical themes with Boston Strangler, both being truthful, in terms of historical accuracy, accounts of the rampage and frenzy created by the evildoings of a serial-killer as seen through the perspective of young reporters. However, sadly, this 2023 version, lacks the intensity and narrative potency that marked Zodiac as one of Fincher's greatest achievements as a director. Boston Strangler is deficient of any kind of emotional impact which is supposed to be a standard for a story that grim. In his review published on The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw synopsizes the movie's weaknesses by asking: "Where is the tension? Where is the suspense? Where is the macabre horror" and concludes his article declaring: "the chill of fear is missing".
Just for the record, I think that it's mandatory to write some facts about the Strangler case that will help the audience become more handily engaged with the story narrated on screen. The, so-called, "Boston Strangler" is responsible for the murders of at least 11 women in Greater Boston between June 14, 1962 and January 4, 1964. Albert Henry DeSalvo, a mentally disturbed man with a violent personal history, he was arrested for battery and robbery at the tender age of 12, confessed to the crimes attributed to the Strangler after his last attack which took place on October 27, 1964. It was the victim's description that nailed DeSalvo who was later identified by more victims as his photo was circulated by the press. In 1967, he was sentenced to life in prison and in 1973 he was found stabbed to death in the prison's infirmary. There is much controversy regarding to whether the crimes pinned on the Strangler were the work of a solitary madman or of several culprits. The latter theory gained traction in the years following DeSalvo's conviction with its advocates pointing out that the diversity of the victims in respect to age and ethnic background suggest something larger in play. The "Silk Stocking Murders", as they are frequently referred to due to the killer's trademark signature, strangling his victims with their underwear tied around their necks in a bow, are still today a matter of feverish debate among the true crime fans.
The protagonists are a duo of journalists working at a minor league newspaper, "Record American" -which was in fact later absorbed by and merged into the "Boston Herald"- Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) and Jean Cole (Carrie Coon). Loretta, tired of being called a fluke and bullied by her male colleagues, wants to work on the case of a string of killings that alarmed the city's authorities, but her editor has her working the lifestyle section which she abhors. It is only through her insistence that she is finally granted a chance to follow her instincts and cover the case which becomes the headline news during the two years of Strangler's terror (1962-1964). Initially working alone, roving the city's streets and talking with witnesses and members of the victims' families, Loretta hatches a theory that links the series of killings and tie them to one person. Soon, Jean Cole (Carrie Coon) joins Loretta in her crusade to inform Boston's citizens about the actual magnitude of the case whose impact of the lives of everyday Bostonians was immense as many of them were forced to purchase weapons such as tear gas as well as new locks and deadbolts for the doors of their apartments. According to some, there were even people who moved out of the city because of the killings. The film intends to reflect the turbulence in vox populi and the scarce response by the various constituencies of power that were supposed to solve the problem.
Victimization of women is the central theme of the movie and Ruskin dichotomizes the subject into, on the one hand, the victims of the Strangler's lethal violence and, on the other, Loretta -first and foremost- as she struggles to raise her voice in a hostile working environment dominated by men. She becomes the people's champion when she asks her editor: "How many women have to die before it's a story?", putting things into perspective, always aided by Jean who proves to be a reliable ally in this quest for the truth. Despite the unequivocal acting charisma of both Knightley and Coon, the script doesn't leave much room for nuanced performances and it feels like the characterization lacks the proper depth. In terms of visuals, director Matt Ruskin and editor Anne McCabe adopt a rather Fincheresque approach, especially if one notices the camera movement and frame composition. The subdued colors commanding the screen are reminiscent of the American director's later work, however this is not where Boston Strangler truly fails. It is the absence of edge in the narrative that leaves the audience with a lukewarm feeling as the ending credits begin to roll. Ruskin is clever enough not to expose his audience to gory sequences and he opts for us to hear rather than witness with our own eyes the cruelty of the home invasions and assaults. Nevertheless, this trickery is certainly not enough to generate the much-needed suspense that would elevate the movie to the level of Zodiac. As Kate Sánchez observes in her review of the movie published on buthewhytho.net: "Boston Strangler lives in the shadow of Zodiac, trying to come out from under it but lacking the necessary bite to do so".
There are more flaws, the most striking and irksome being the stereotypical characterization of male characters in the supporting roles. I know it's supposed to be a movie about the strife of two women against the patriarchy of the era, however some of the secondary characters are more akin to caricatures than plausible, three-dimensional human beings. The, distinct misogyny of the Strangler is merged with that displayed by Loretta and Jean's editor, the chief of the police and other authority figures who are represented as -more or less- despicable beings. That said, Boston Strangler is not a production lacking any merit as there will be certainly many who would be entertained while also becoming privy to lesser-known facts regarding thus horrible case. Personally, I was oblivious of the work done by the two journalists who have themselves christened the killer as the "Boston Strangler", a name whose notoriety is hard to exceed. Always keeping in mind that this is not a film similar to Zodiac in terms of screenplay or narrative cohesion, you may give it a try at least for the consistent performances by the two leading actresses.
NOTE: For those who would like to watch another take on the same true story, there is also the 1968 The Boston Strangler, directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Tony Curtis and Henry Fonda. Fleischer's film gained both critical and commercial success and Tony Curtis delivered a memorable performance in the role of the Strangler.