The latest film from writer-director Matt Ruskin begins in media res as an attentive neighbor overhears an attack on a female tenant in the unit next door. As he bangs on the door, the words “Inspired by a True Story” appear onscreen as the attacker turns up the radio to disguise the murder.
There are several attack scenes in Boston Strangler, which follows real life journalist Loretta McLaughlin (Kiera Knightley) as she embarks on an obsessive investigation of a serial killer targeting women in Boston from 1962 and 1964.
This first attack is the sparsest: it’s all strategic framing and sound effects to imply violence. This won’t always hold true, however; several other sequences of gendered violence are more explicit and sustained. But while the female victims were sexually assaulted and strangled, Ruskin and director of photography Ben Kutchins are careful not to sensationalize the crimes.
The gendered nature of the crimes is a relevant talking point considering who the victims are, as well as the film’s focus on Loretta and her colleague Jean Cole (Carrie Coon). Boston Strangler takes place at a time when women reporters were relegated to the “Lifestyle” section of the newspaper, which is where a frustrated Loretta works at the beginning of the film. Boston Strangler is equally interested in Loretta’s pursuit of the killer and her struggle to be taken seriously as a crime journalist.
Each morning, Loretta scours the pages of the Record-American, the newspaper where she works. As she and her husband James (Morgan Spector) get their two kids ready, Loretta compares the coverage from competing papers, clipping out instances where the Record-American has been scooped. She does this because Loretta is desperate to get onto the historically male-dominated crime beat, and she’s forced to go to persistent, dogged means to convince her editor Jack MacLaine (Chris Cooper) that her keen eye is needed.
When Loretta makes a connection between a trio of seemingly unrelated murders of elderly women, she seizes the opportunity to prove herself. After hunting down a police contact in Detective Conley (Alessandro Nivola), the gamble pays off and the story blows up, drawing the ire of the Police Commissioner McNamara (Bill Camp) and forcing Loretta to partner with the far more experienced Cole.
Given the film’s real-life origins and time period, it’s hard to shake off the specter of David Fincher’s Zodiac. Boston Strangler features all of the tropes of investigative journalism films: there’s plenty of montages of searches through dusty records, conducting interviews, and sharing conspiratorial drinks late into the night. Emmy nominated production designer John P. Goldsmith and costume designer Arjun Bhasin ensure the visual aesthetic is period appropriate, which – coupled with the casting of Knightley (hiding her English accent without attempting to go Bostonian) – lends the production an air of prestige seriousness.
As any true crime fans know, there are no easy answers in this case, which identifies and tracks multiple suspects, including David Dastmalchian‘s Albert DeSalvo and Ryan Winkles‘ Daniel Marsh. A post-script offers a small measure of closure, but the film is ultimately less about solving the crimes than the grueling experience of being a female investigative reporter in the 60s.
While the lack of closure will be frustrating to some audiences, its female-centric focus is what sets Boston Strangler apart. Ruskin’s script introduces a career-obsessed woman in order to explore how her work aspirations challenge the socially imposed ideals for women at the time.
While Loretta’s struggle to maintain a work/life balance won’t be surprising for contemporary audiences, Boston Strangler does a mostly admirable job of juggling her personal issue with the fact-finding mission of the case. At times the narrative does fall into a repetitive lull, but this is due, in part, to the film’s status as “informed by” the details of the case and its real life protagonist.
Boston Strangler is a compelling, if occasionally uneven depiction of the struggles of ambitious professional women in the 60s. Knightley is a capable lead, and there are a few genuinely thrilling moments when Loretta finds herself in dangerous situations with questionable men. For true crime newbies, this is a solid introduction to the Boston Strangler. Call it Zodiac-lite.
Boston Strangler will debut on March 17 on Hulu in the U.S and Disney+ in Canada.