Synopsis: Loretta McLaughlin was the reporter who first connected the murders and broke the story of the Boston Strangler. She and Jean Cole challenged the sexism of the early 1960s to report on the city’s most notorious serial killer.
Stars: Keira Knightley, Carrie Coon, Alessandro Nivola, David Dastmalchian, Morgan Spector, Bill Camp, Chris Cooper
Director: Matt Ruskin
Running Length: 112 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: It will always be a mystery why 2007’s Zodiac didn’t get more recognition the year it came out. Directed by David Fincher, it was a frightening look at the killing spree between 1968 and 1985 in San Francisco from the perspective of civilian reporters and police. Epic in design and solid performance, it received no significant awards but has gone on to be a blueprint for many procedural detective shows. Its aesthetic look was copied for numerous true crime dramas.
I mention Zodiac so thoroughly in my review of 20th Century Studios Boston Strangler (premiering exclusively on Hulu), not just because it skillfully focuses on reporters/police tracking a well-known serial killer throughout the ’60s but because it’s impossible not to compare the two films. It’s not disparaging writer/director Matt Ruskin’s new endeavor, produced by Ridley Scott, to say that one could imagine this being part of the “Zodiac Universe” because both movies are a systematic, even-keeled approach to the subject. And both present the violence of the crimes from an emotionally removed place. This is what happened; it was ugly, and a human committed it; you can look away if you want, but it won’t change the fact that it happened.
After two women are murdered in short succession, reporter Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley, Silent Night) asks her boss (Chris Cooper, Little Women) to be assigned to look into the deaths and see if there is a connection. Unhappy with her job writing fluff pieces and wanting more serious work, Loretta considers this an opportunity to level up and prove her worth. It takes some convincing, but she can finally dig around to see what she can find. Eventually, paired with the more experienced (but still often just as undermined) Jean Cole (Carrie Coon, Gone Girl), Loretta pieces together the pattern of a serial killer that won’t be stopped.
Facing opposition from the police and politicians who don’t want to be seen as foolish, Loretta and Jean are often forced to go the extra mile, putting their lives and reputations at risk, to prove their theory is correct before the Boston Strangler strikes again. Facing pressure from the public, who grow increasingly terrified as bodies of innocent women are routinely found viciously murdered, the reporters follow their leads and instincts to go beyond the headlines and newsprint to help take down a deadly predator.
I deliberately didn’t do my homework before watching Boston Strangler, purposely not reading up on the case’s history and passing on the chance to watch director Richard Fleischer’s 1968 film version of The Boston Strangler starring Tony Curtis. I wanted to let Ruskin’s film tell the story to me, and for the most part, it was an informative retelling of the events with the apparent glossing over of the finer particulars to bring the movie in under two hours. That gives the film a swift pace and little time to linger anywhere for very long, which is where we get the trade-off.
When you have a movie like Boston Strangler with enough details to keep you thinking and a nice gait to ensure you stay engaged, you only realize later that you didn’t learn much about the people milling about the movie. We know Loretta and Jean as crackerjack reporters. Still, their personal lives are paper thin, aside from Loretta’s husband (Nanny‘s Morgan Spector, who, ironically, plays Coon’s husband on HBO’s The Gilded Age) going from supporting his wife to a “You’re never home to make dinner!” kinda guy pretty quickly.
Nevertheless, this is a slick film made with evident skill and care. I can understand why it is better suited for a streaming debut than making a go of it in theaters; it just plays better on a smaller screen for at-home digestion. That allows for the frightening details of the case to creep their way into your brain as well. Boston Strangler is crafted nicely for a weekend watch or stormy night viewing. Don’t be shocked if you leave a light on at bedtime…and please, always check the peephole before opening the door!