Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon star in Boston Strangler, arriving this week on Hulu, and serve as the highlight to this relatively straightforward true crime thriller.
In the early 1960s, a string of murders gripped the city of Boston in fear. But the tale of the Boston Strangler might never have been brought to light if not for the work of two intrepid journalists eager for justice. While the title is focused on the serial killer, Hulu’s Boston Strangler actually puts the focus of the film on the reporters behind the story: Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) and Jean Cole (Carrie Coon).
Directed By: Matt Ruskin
Written By: Matt Ruskin
Starring: Keira Knightley, Carrie Coon, Chris Cooper, Alessandro Nivola
Release Date: March 17, 2023 only on Hulu
Generally speaking, I loved this approach to the story. Instead of putting the spotlight on the killer (or killers) and getting into their heads/motives; or even taking the detective side of things, showing law enforcement; it’s the “little guys” on full display. It does an excellent job of showing how important every day journalists are in covering important topics like this. How it can impact a community and hold certain groups accountable.
It’s certainly not the first movie to take this perspective, but it’s still not exactly a common thing in true crime movies. As such, it was nice to see, and both Knightley and Coon eat up these roles. In fact, they’re definitely the driving force of the whole movie (Knightley more so as Coon mostly serves in a supporting spot) and the reason you feel compelled to keep watching.
Here’s the thing, Boston Strangler is about as straightforward as it gets. Almost painfully so, in that the story brings up a number of interesting ideas and subplots…but has little interest in following them up and telling a story. Instead, the film is more intent on getting through the main points in the timeline of the killings in its less than two-hour runtime.
In a lot of ways, the film isn’t about the serial killer himself, but rather the story surrounding the killings; the controversy and the people who brought it to light. The problem is, it refuses to focus on any one aspect, any of which would be incredibly interesting. Despite choosing to tell the story from the perspective of McLaughlin, the film is still too beholden to the Strangler crimes and bouncing along the timeline.
The film touches on a number of aspects within the story. You get hints of how this story is taking over McLaughlin’s life and impacting her marriage (which seems great to start). There are moments that highlight how her dogged reporting is putting her, and her family’s, lives in danger. There’s even some points being made about how the eventual capture of Albert DeSalvo, and his confession, may have been connected to something deeper.
There are a bunch of tiny threads and interesting subplots introduced during the film, but none of them are explored. Hell, the entire thing about McLaughlin feeling threatened at home is essentially one (maybe two depending on how you look at it) scene where she gets a series of phone calls at home with only heavy breathing on the other end. After that, it’s pretty much brushed aside by a quick line of dialog from Cole saying, “that’s why I have an unlisted number.”
That’s it! The whole movie could have been centered on the real-life peril McLaughlin faced in pursuing this story. While the concept of the cops being corrupt or incompetent is a more consistent subplot, even that doesn’t feel like it was fully addressed. All of the interesting “angles” the film could have used for the main story never go anywhere as the film makes sure to keep hitting certain points on the timeline.
There’s a scene in the film, that feels all to poignant in this regard. A moment when McLaughlin and Cole are arguing with their editors over things and Chris Cooper’s character continually repeats the same question: “What’s the story?!”
He understands what the women are telling him, and the facts being presented, but there’s no story there…no angle from which to TELL all this information. That’s pretty much exactly how it feels with the movie. It has all these great elements, but it never pulls together into a story. The result is something that feels like a by-the-numbers retelling.
It’s all the more frustrating considering the first third of the film is really quite engaging. Watching as McLaughlin begins piecing things together, recognizing the string of murders for what it is/was, makes for some compelling viewing. We witness her struggle under as a reporter, being relegated to simple lifestyle stories, and put in work on her own time to chase this important story. It’s easy to root for her in these early days, as we see how she’s also having to push back against an apathetic police force that’s unwilling (or incapable) of doing anything about it.
As the film pushes the timeline forward year-by-year, and introduces new aspects for McLaughlin to deal with, things begin to drop off. The fact that they seemingly introduce a gripping new angle for her character, only to dismiss it within a scene or two, made it hard to connect to the film on a deeper level. More importantly, it made it a bit tougher to go along when things began diverging from the true story.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good “based on a true story” movie that fudges reality in order to make a more compelling film. That’s to be expected. With Boston Strangler, however, it doesn’t do that to tell any particularly story, which makes them stand out all the more.
I can’t sit here and say Boston Strangler was a “bad” movie. More that it wastes the potential we can all clearly see. It has a whole bunch of great parts to it. The acting all around is on point, with Knightley and Coon keeping you invested even when things get wonky. I enjoyed how the information was presented and the way the film commits to keeping it’s POV on McLaughlin’s character. It adds a sense of dread/mystery even if you already know the story. Even the subplots give us hints of a deeper story that are intriguing enough to keep you hooked even if they’re dropped later on.
Boston Strangler has all the right ingredients, but can’t quite pull them together in a meaningful way.