Boston Strangler Review: A Middling True Crime Drama

“Boston Strangler is a thrilling and well-acted true crime drama that tries in vain to recapture the same atmospheric tone and sense of danger as crime classics like Se7en and Zodiac.”

Benefits

  • Keira Knightley’s quietly commanding lead performance

  • Carrie Coon’s confident supporting turn

  • A refreshingly fast pace throughout

Cons

  • An unsatisfying low-key conclusion

  • A sad color palette

  • Lack of urgency and effort

David Fincher’s fingerprints are over Boston Strangler, the new true crime drama from writer-director Matt Ruskin. Whether it’s designed or not remains a mystery right up until the moment when the film’s lead reporter, Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley), comes perilously close to recreating one of the most iconic scenes from Fincher’s true crime masterpiece, Zodiac. Unlike the acclaimed 2007 drama, Boston Strangler doesn’t have the patience to let the fear of the moment build until it sends Knightley’s Boston reporter running away from one of her suspect’s potential traps.

The film is ready Zodiac tribute is not the only case there Boston Strangler comes up to his own ambitions. On the one hand, the film’s refreshingly fast pace helps set it apart from so many of the other true crime dramas that have come out in recent years. On the other side, Boston Strangler tries to fit so much material into its 112-minute running time that it ends up feeling crowded and lightweight. Not only does the film fail to give its talented stars as much to do as they deserve, but it also repeatedly chooses to move from one scene to the next without ever letting viewers sit and really feel the emotional weight of its tragic true story .

Chris Cooper sits on a news desk in the Boston Strangler.

Set in the early 1960s, Boston Strangler follows Knightley’s Loretta, a newsroom reporter who gets the chance to walk away from the paper’s Lifestyle column when she begins reporting on the rise of a serial killer in Boston. Her discovery that a series of recent murders are connected by several unnerving similarities results in Loretta becoming the paper’s lead reporter on “The Boston Strangler,” a real man who killed over 10 women in Boston over the course of several years. Along the way, Loretta’s editor, Jack MacLaine (Chris Cooper), assigns her an investigative partner in Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), one of the few other female reporters employed by their paper.

Before long, Loretta and Jean emerge as the lead reporters on the Boston Strangler, much to the annoyance of the Boston City Police Department and its commissioner (Bill Camp). During the course of her investigation, however, Loretta’s interest in the case quickly grows into a full-blown obsession. Consequently, the case not only begins to threaten the fragile stability of Loretta’s marriage and family life, but the attention surrounding it also begins to put both her and Jean in real danger.

As the plot suggests, Boston Strangler follows the same general arc as many of the detective and journalist thrillers that have come before it. Loretta’s emotional journey from an aspiring reporter bent on finding her first real investigation to a dangerously obsessed journalist intent on catching the Boston Strangler bears striking similarities to the arcs taken by characters such as Jake Gyllenhaal’s enigmatic cartoonist in Zodiac and even Jodie Foster’s na├»ve but capable FBI intern The Silence of the Lambs. Fortunately, Knightley’s tightly controlled lead performance manages to bring real humanity to Loretta’s story in the film.

Carrie Coon wears a pair of headphones in Boston Strangler.
20th Century Studios

Opposite her, Carrie Coon continues to prove herself as one of Hollywood’s most reliable actresses. As Jean Cole, she brings a much needed confidence Boston Strangler which helps ground the story in a kind of artisanal professionalism that the film badly needs. Together, she and Knightley share an infectious on-screen chemistry, but the film never spends as much time exploring Loretta and Jean’s friendship as it should. Instead of letting Coon share the limelight as Boston Stranglerher co-leader, her Jean is instead relegated to being an important supporting figure on Loretta’s journey.

The film never gives enough time to any of the other talented supporting cast either. In addition to Coon, Chris Cooper, Alessandro Nivola, Morgan Spector, Bill Camp and Rory Cochrane all appear in roles that feel disappointingly paper thin. Despite his dominant screen presence, Spector’s performance as Loretta’s husband comes off as particularly entone. Ruskin’s script never invests enough energy in exploring Loretta’s marriage, which greatly undermines her husband’s lightning-quick transition from supportive spouse to disapproving nag.

Alessandro Nivola walks between the police cars in Boston Strangler.
20th Century Studios

Boston Strangler‘s shallow depictions of many of its key relationships and moments are ultimately mirrored by its dreary visual palette. In an attempt to highlight the darkness of the story and setting, Ruskin and cinematographer Ben Kutchins apply a desaturated filter to Boston Strangler which makes the film look annoyingly muddy and underexposed. Like many thrillers that have come before it, the film makes the mistake of sacrificing visual clarity solely in the hope of unnecessarily overemphasizing a bleak atmosphere already established by the script.

All these decisions result in Boston Strangler is a fine but easily forgettable true crime thriller that doesn’t explore its real story or characters as deeply as they deserve. Ruskin’s ambitions for the film are clear from the moment it begins until it ends, but there is a disappointing emptiness at the heart of Boston Strangler which prevents it from producing the kind of empathy or fear that the story demands. The film ultimately proves that referencing the work of peers is relatively easy. It’s recreating their precision and control that’s the hard part.

Boston Strangler is available to stream now on Hulu.

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