THE STORY – Reporter Loretta McLaughlin becomes the first person to connect a series of murders and break the story of the Boston Strangler. She and Jean Cole challenge the sexism of the early 1960s to report on the city’s most notorious serial killer.
THE CAST – Keira Knightley, Carrie Coon, Alessandro Nivola, Morgan Spector, David Dastmalchian & Chris Cooper
THE TEAM – Matt Ruskin (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 112 Minutes
The Boston Strangler had a literal chokehold on the Massachusetts city in the 1960s. As more and more women, young and old, were found dead throughout the city, residents lived in fear, wondering if they would be next and if the serial killer would ever be caught. As police tried to solve the case, two investigative reporters for the Record American, Jean Cole, and Loretta McLaughlin, worked tirelessly to bring the facts to readers, risking their lives to do so.
Reading the gruesome details of the 13 murders, which include horrifying ways in which the women were “presented” to police, it’s hard to believe it’s a true story and not something straight out of a movie. It makes perfect sense, then, that director and writer Matt Ruskin would bring this story to the screen in “Boston Stranger.” Ruskin focuses his retelling of the crimes from the perspective of the two reporters who doggedly tracked the killings for years, despite facing sexism and harassment every step of the way. It’s another cinematic entry that shows how vital journalism is to society, although the rest of the film falls flat in entertainment and suspense.
McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) works on the lifestyle desk at the Record-American newspaper, but she yearns for something more meaningful than features on housekeeping. When she notices that women’s deaths are going underreported and believes that the crimes may be connected, her editor Jack Maclaine (Chris Cooper), refuses to give her a chance on the story. It appears that the six men on the news team, aka the “boys club” in this newsroom, can do just fine on their own. But Knightly’s Loretta is persistent and doesn’t take no for an answer. When she finally gets a chance, she sets the newspaper, city, and police department ablaze with a story that catapults her into the big reporter leagues.
Once she teams up with colleague Cole (Carrie Coon), a seasoned vet and no-nonsense kind of journalist, they continue to scoop every reporter in town and give the detectives a run for their money. Their collaboration draws many similarities to the one seen in Maria Schrader’s “She Said,” in which two New York Times reporters, Jodi Kantor, and Megan Twohey, pursue an investigation into Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s history of abuse and sexual misconduct. In both films, the women bring out the best in each other — personally and professionally- as they intensely chase leads and speak with sources to get the most accurate information possible to their readers while forming a strong bond with each other.
While Loretta’s career may be booming, Ruskin doesn’t let us forget that women and their careers weren’t taken seriously back in the day. The more time she spends at work chasing after leads, the tension begins to build with her husband, James (Morgan Spector). He later shows his true colors and suggests she should stay home and care for the children while he progresses in his career. The male leaders around her, from her editor to the police commissioner, also refuse to take her seriously or trust her reporter instincts. But, as she’s willing to put herself in situations no other reporter will go – like one scene where she goes to a suspect’s apartment, and the vibes scream red flags – she shows her commitment to justice and the truth. Knightley stands her ground throughout the film, never losing her confidence despite so much adversity around her.
That being said, “Boston Strangler” takes quite a procedural and lackluster approach to its drama. There’s only so much you can expect to see from a reporter when it comes to chasing a crime story, which includes interviews with victims’ family members and friends, secret chats with homicide detective Jim Conley (Alessandro Nivola), and writing articles; it’s not typically very visually exciting. Unfortunately, that’s very standard for most movies about journalism. The work just isn’t that glamorous and doesn’t translate that great on the big screen. But we do at least get one chilling scene where Loretta receives a creepy call, and all that can be heard is someone breathing on the other end.
The movie lets us down again when it comes to the parts that should be super exciting, like catching the serial killer. After months of searching, all leads point to Albert DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian), a man well-known to law enforcement for his long history of predation. Everyone accepts him as the killer, and there’s not much fanfare surrounding the arrest. That should be a massive moment in the film – we and the entirety of Boston have been waiting for this moment – but it’s so tame. And, even when there’s a possibility that the case might not have been solved fully, it seems like Loretta is the only one who gives a damn. For a crime that had the whole community in fear and was big enough to make an entire movie about, it doesn’t live up to the drama. But, Ruskin can be commended for the way he avoids showing us the brutal violence these women endured in their last few moments, usually just displaying the backside of the person who enters their homes and capturing the murder taking place off-screen.
Even though “Boston Strangler” lacks the oomph needed for a gripping serial killer chase, its focus on journalism and the power that women in newsrooms bring is a shining aspect. Given how much the public mistrusts the media, highlighting the amazing work of dedicated news industry professionals has never been more important than now. The passion and years of work that Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole put in for the Boston Strangler case is a story that rightfully deserved a spotlight.