‘All the President’s Men’ and ‘Zodiac’ are among the best movies ever made about investigative journalism, and I was hoping the same for Hulu’s ‘Boston Strangler.’ The title itself needs no introduction, given its notorious true story that rocked the capital city of Massachusetts between 1962 and 1964 when 13 women were strangled to death with their own silk stockings.
The story is also previously covered in past movies, namely ‘The Strangler’ in 1964 and the Tony Curtis-starred ‘The Boston Strangler’ in 1968. The Hulu version is even told from the perspective of two real-life investigative reporters, Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole from ‘Boston Record American,’ who are responsible for covering the story. With Ridley Scott serving as one of the co-producers and it boasts a stellar cast including Keira Knightley, Carrie Coon, Carrie Cooper, and Alessandro Nivola, among others, it looks as if we have a gem of a movie worth streaming here.
Well, I wish this would be the case, but ‘Boston Strangler’ is a missed opportunity after streaming the movie for nearly two hours. Matt Ruskin (‘Crown Heights’), who also wrote the screenplay, sounds intriguing enough: We first learn about Loretta (Keira Knightley) wanting to break away from writing lifestyle columns about toasters because she’s more interested in reporting crime stories.
She finally gets her opportunity when she becomes the first one who connects the dots between the murders of three women in their apartments: They all died in a similar fashion, with the killer ending up tying the silk stockings around their necks in a decorative knot. Her report on the murders subsequently made headlines after the ‘Boston Record American’ became the first paper to cover the story.
But the story that goes public on the front page of the newspaper doesn’t sit well with the Boston Police Commissioner McNamara (Bill Camp) after he complains to editor Jack (Chris Cooper) about the way Loretta is doing her job. Loretta’s inexperience leads to Jack pairing her with Jean Cole (Carrie Coon) to follow up with the story, even though Loretta prefers to fly solo. However, having a seasoned reporter like Jean Cole does help Loretta a lot in making progress in interviewing the likes of victims’ friends and acquaintances. Loretta also befriends homicide detective Jim Conley (Alessandro Nivola) as they meet up every now and then to share details related to the Boston Strangler murders.
‘Boston Strangler’ also deals with Loretta and Jean Cole’s personal lives. However, the movie focuses more on the former, whose initially supportive husband, James (Morgan Spector), grows increasingly tired and fed up with her tirelessly working around the clock rather than spending more time at home.
Ruskin brings out the best in his cast, beginning with Keira Knightley’s engaging lead turn as the tenacious Loretta McLaughlin, and the same also goes for Carrie Coon. Their on-screen pairing as two investigative reporters determined to uncover the truth behind the murders are also worth mentioning. Chris Cooper and Alessandro Nivola deliver good support in their respective roles as the grizzled editor Jack, and misanthropic homicide detective, Jim Conley. At the same time, David Dastmalchian is perfectly typecast as the prime suspect, Albert DeSalvo.
The movie’s predominantly grayish and gloomy visual aesthetics match the subject matter, thanks to Ben Kutchins’ atmospheric cinematography. The overall technical sides, covering from John P. Goldsmith’s suitably drab production design to Arjun Bhasin’s 1960s period-appropriate costume design using lots of muted colors and textures, are spot-on, reminding me of something that Ridley Scott and David Fincher would choose to visualize their movies in such a way.
But even with all the top-notch cast and moody visuals can’t mask the shortcomings of Ruskin’s screenplay. The story is disappointingly perfunctory. He could have delved deeper into the subject matter beyond the killer’s murder spree and the reporters’ investigative journalism approach. Ruskin seems more content with playing safe and rigid in his surface-level storytelling. This, in turn, tends to make the movie feels flat with severely lacking morbid fear, suspense (except for a brief but effective scene involving a creepy, anonymous call trying to scare off Loretta), and dramatic tension. Movies like ‘Zodiac’ see Fincher invested deeply in his story, and those who have seen it and are impressed by the result are still debating it today. ‘Boston Strangler’ is akin to watching one of those typical TV episodes of a weekly crime series.
Ruskin also botches the potential of addressing the sexism and gender politics that Loretta and Jean have to overcome throughout their investigation. Again, just like the story about the murder and journalism are told, it barely scratches the surface. If only he had put on more effort and even taken a greater risk in stepping up above the monotonous narrative, ‘Boston Strangler’ might be one of the best movies about investigative journalism in recent memory.