Review: 'Boston Strangler' Spotlights Courageous Female Reporters

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday March 16, 2023

Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon in 'Boston Strangler'
Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon in 'Boston Strangler'  (Source:Walt Disney Studios)

The Matt Ruskin-written and -directed film "Boston Stranger," premiering March 17 on Hulu, dramatizes the work of two female reporters — Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) and Jean Cole (Carrie Coon) — as they piece together the alarming news that a series of killings targeting women around the Boston metropolitan area may be the work of a single deranged individual.

The year is 1961, and the killer in question will come to be known as The Boston Strangler.

McLaughlin, a reporter at a newspaper called the Record American (a real-life forerunner to today's tabloid the Boston Herald), bored by her assignments (among them product testing toasters), lobbies her editor (Chris Cooper) for more substantive tasks. When she realizes three separate murders of elderly women all seem to share a common MO, her journalistic instincts tell her the crimes must be related.

Initially investigating on her own, McLaughlin promptly runs into strong resistance from the city's male-dominated institutions — including the police department, whose commissioner (Bill Camp), dismisses her as a "skirt" whose "flirting" with his officers is only distracting lawmen from getting their work done.

Once teamed with the more experienced and street-wise Jean Cole, however, McLaughlin quickly gains the savvy and confidence she'll need to keep hammering at the case, and to call out the Boston PD for various failures in coordinating with police in other cities (where the killer has seemingly also been active). She also forges a relationship with a Boston police detective, Conley (Alessandro Nivola), with whom she swaps bits of intel.

But the case is far from simple, and contradictory theories emerge as to the identity of the killer. Is he the unhinged ex-boyfriend of one of the victims? A serial molester who is well-known for his assaults on women in the nearby town of Cambridge? Once the public hears of the serial killings, and the police acknowledge the crimes are linked, the case starts to spinout of control, with multiple suspects, poltical pressure, and even celebrity defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey all playing roles in how history will remember and interpret the killer's reign of terror.

The complications leak into McLaughlin's personal life. As the body count grows and the killer works according to his own schedule, McLaughlin finds herself working late nights and being called away from family holiday gatherings — all of which slowly erodes her marriage to her initially-supportive husband (Morgan Spector). But the personal cost won't stop McLaughlin from pursuing the truth; the more she chases leads and follows clues, the more deeply angry and determined she becomes at the way women are systematically belittled even as they are terrorized by a world in which — as one male character bluntly puts it — "men kill women."

Knightley is terrific as the fledgling crime reporter who learns the ropes and grows a tough hide even as her heart remains raw, but Carrie Coon does award-worthy work that almost walks away with the film. Ruskin's script is tight and effective, even if the many strands of the real-life case present conundrums and uncertainties that rival those in David Fincher's maddening 2007 true-crime thriller "Zodiac." (Luckily, "Boston Strangler" avoids the excruciating run-time of that film.) But his direction, while effective with the characters, puts Boston of the early 1960s into a cold-sleep dream state, with the film's gray tones and dim lighting serving as a nostalgia-free shorthand for the film's mid-century setting. The mood fits the sense of a sexist time brimming with casual male toxicity, but it also robs the film of too much visual energy.

That aside, "Boston Strangler" is a rich character study and a rewarding (if, in some ways, frustrating) look back at one of America's most mysterious, and terrifying, serial killers.

"Boston Strangler" premieres on Hulu March 17.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.