Boston Strangler

In 1962, Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) was chafing at the bit to move on from Boston’s Record American’s lifestyle desk into investigatory reporting, something she finally convinced editor Jack Maclaine (MA resident Chris Cooper) to allow her to do on her own time.  When she scooped both the Boston Globe and Boston Herald by getting proof that three recent murders were likely the work of the same killer, she was paired with the more experienced Jean Cole (Carrie Coon) and would go on to dub the serial killer the “Boston Strangler.”

Laura's Review: B+

Don’t mistake writer/director Matt Ruskin’s ("The Infiltrator") new movie as a serial killer movie even though it is named for one.  “Boston Strangler” is about investigative journalism, the sexism facing two female reporters in the early 60’s and a city’s police department’s rush to allay public fear outweighing investigative truth.  While watching “Boston Strangler,” I was reminded time and again of David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” a movie I wouldn’t be surprised to learn Ruskin had studied in preparation for this.  Like “Zodiac,” “Boston Strangler” features journalists whose personal lives suffer for their deep involvement in a real life case featuring multiple, viable suspects, cinematographer Ben Kutchins ("Crown Heights") favoring a similar, muted color palette.  And like “Zodiac’s” Robert Graysmith, Loretta goes to interview someone connected to the murders only to flee in terror when the subject tries to lure her deeper into his home. 

Surprisingly, the film doesn’t even open in Boston, but in Ann Arbor and in 1965, after Albert DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian) had been arrested on rape charges.  We’ll witness a man in an apartment listening to what sounds like a woman being assaulted on the other side of his wall.  It has long been surmised that DeSalvo wasn’t the only strangler operating in Boston from 1962 to 1964, some even believing he committed none of the killings (he was tied to the last victim with DNA evidence in 2013).   As Ruskin’s film comes from Loretta’s point of view, “Boston Strangler” makes the case that there were at least three murderers, her ‘Boston Stranglers’ front page headline the movie’s parting shot.

The film does a solid job capturing the zeitgeist (and even more amazingly, Boston accents).  Loretta is blessed with a supportive husband, James (Morgan Spector, Coon's 'The Gilded Age' costar), while her boss relegates her to reviewing the latest Sunbeam toaster (ironically, we’ve just seen her preparing toast in an assembly line while getting three kids off to school).  These two men’s attitudes will slowly circle and reverse over the course of the film as Loretta’s instincts are proven but more demands are made upon her time. 

The college educated Loretta isn’t given much respect as she tries to garner information from officials (she gets her first important – and lurid - details from the super of a victim’s building right around the corner from where her mother lives).  Jean, with no degree but connections reaching back to her childhood, shows Loretta the ropes, even tackling calling every Sullivan in the Boston phone book to find a corroborating witness that a fourth victim had had a bow tied around her neck, just like the first three.  Loretta, who’s discovered one victim was being harassed by a boyfriend while another was being pressured into an abortion by her married boss, becomes frustrated when even friendly Detective Jim Conley (Boston native Alessandro Nivola) tells her they are too overwhelmed to follow every lead.  Meanwhile, Boston Police Commissioner McNamara (Bill Camp) flies into Maclaine’s office ranting about Jack’s ‘skirt’ flirting with his officers to get information (he’ll later move on the case by planning to raid gay bars, a perfect example of certain attitudes of the time). 

Knightley’s Boston accent may flatten out into something more generic as the film progresses, but the British actress does a fine job walking the line between acceptable 1960’s female behavior and passionate ambition.  Coon’s character’s tougher background and insider approach make her an interesting foil and the two actresses make their evolving friendship one based on earned professional trust.  Production designer John P. Goldsmith recreates the old newsroom atmosphere, a middle class 60’s home and urban apartment buildings and pairs them with period appropriate locations (the film was shot in Boston and DeSalvo’s home town of Malden).

Ruskin builds the film beautifully as Loretta makes more and more connections, finding the perfect time to circle back to Ann Arbor, whose Detective DeLine (Rory Cochrane), calls her seeking advice on six strangulation murders.  Loretta, who by then has heard DeSalvo being led through his confession on reel to reel tape, flies out to meet him and what she stumbles upon will make true crime afficiendos sit up and take notice.   “Boston Strangler” may be a modest production, but it is a mystery why Disney/20th Century made the decision to bypass a theatrical release.

Robin's Review: B+

Between June of 1962 and January 1964, the Greater Boston area was locked down in terror when 13 women, ages 19 to 85, were strangled to death. Record American life-style reporter Loretta McLaughlin broke the story but faced official police opposition to her claims of the identity of the “Boston Strangler.”

Back in 1962, I was about 11-years when the first news of a strangler on the loose came to light. As the murder count increased, I remember the paranoia that gripped the city of Boston and all the surrounding communities. Essentially, the cities shut down at night, locksmiths made a mint and women lived in terror.

Then, in 1968, Richard Fleischer directed “The Boston Strangler,” starring Tony Curtis as the accused killer, Albert DeSalvo. With the release of that film, Boston was again reminded of the terror that held the city in its grip for two years. That film was a straightforward police procedural that recreated the murders and showcased the investigation by the BPD (with Henry Fonda as John Bottomly, the head investigator of the case). It was a tough and gritty film that captured the fear of the time.

Now, if you are expecting writer-director Matt Ruskin’s “Boston Strangler,” starring Keira Knightley as Record-American reporter Loretta McLaughlin who first broke the story, to be a remake of the ’68 film, forget about it. Yes, it is a procedural, of sorts, but with the focus on the reporters who covered the case’s story – this includes Jean Cole (Carrie Coon) who mentored the less experienced Loretta in their investigation, and Jack McLain, their editor.

The telling of this fascinating investigation deals with many of our current issues, like sexism in the workplace, misogyny and cover-up by the police departments involved and the fear of violence and crime. And, like the recent “She Said,” about breaking of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, it gets down to the nuts and bolts about bringing an important story to light – by women. Both films are from the women’s viewpoints and everything they needed to do – much more than men – to be able to get the story and tell the truth.

Knightley and Coon embody the two dedicated and stalwart reporters who would not back down, despite the threats from police officials and DA offices, and brought the Strangler story to light. Acting, by all on board, is capable and convincing and makes for a well-pace crime drama and investigation. Unlike the Tony Curtis rendition as Albert DeSalvo, the killer is kept at a distance and ambiguous, adding to the tensions the crimes brought to the city.

20th Century Digital releases "Boston Strangler" on Hulu on 3/17/23.