In many ways, the new Hulu movie BOSTON STRANGLER could be a companion piece to last year’s SHE SAID. Both were dramatic evocations of true events where two female newspaper reporters worked together to bring a monster to justice. Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was the criminal of SHE SAID, while the Boston Strangler is the brute here. BOSTON STRANGLER betters SHE SAID by creating more tension and stakes in its telling, but it too struggles to clearly portray its heroes and villain. And in many respects, a two-hour film isn’t enough time to tell such a complex story as the hunt for the Strangler, particularly in its aftermath when the authorities started to wonder if they had the right man. A miniseries would’ve served the twists and turns best, but nonetheless, this take on the material is a noble examination, if not a thorough one.
The film benefits from its premise right off the bat as the story examines the little-known story of how the Boston Record American newspaper reporters Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) and Jean Cole (Carrie Coon) helped bring to light the particulars of the Boston Strangler murders. These two worked tirelessly during the killer’s reign of terror from 1962-1964 to bring the facts of the murders to the forefront for a terrified city. Women getting the opportunity to cover such front-page news was extremely rare in that day, and McLaughlin was wholly new to such reporting. She’d previously only been assigned feature stories about fashion and homemaking, but she begged her editor for the chance to cover something weightier. Cole, on the other hand, was an experienced undercover reporter, but she too was treated as anything but an equal by her male peers in the newsroom.
Indeed, the parallel ‘victimization’ of women theme is clear throughout BOSTON STRANGLER, as the reporters are held down by the patriarchy just as the killer is holding down his female victims to strangle them. Fortunately, writer/director Matt Ruskin doesn’t underline the similarities with a heavy hand. Sure, newspaper editor Jack MacLaine (Chris Cooper) is presented as a craggy, tough guy, a thorn in McLaughlin’s side, but he is also shown to be consistently supportive of her and Cole too even when they stumbled here and there. And despite showcasing a lot of pig-headed men standing in the way of McLaughlin and Cole, including fellow reporters, the Boston PD, and secretive city hall types, Ruskin balances such overt sexism with a number of men who genuinely supported the two. McLaughlin’s husband (Morgan Spector) is portrayed as a loving and helpful spouse, while Detective Conley (Alessandro Nivola) becomes an invaluable inside asset to them.
Ruskin fails, however, to make more of the Cole character. Despite an acclaimed actress like Coon in the role, the veteran reporter isn’t fleshed out nearly enough. Was her part cut for time? At certain intervals, it feels like footage that may have illuminated the character may have ended up on the cutting room floor. It’s a shame as Coon gives hints of what a great supporting character Cole could have been. It’s all Knightley’s show essentially and the accomplished star takes that lion’s share of screen time and runs with it. She plays steely courage quite well and even manages an American accent with aplomb. Still, her part is written a little too one-note at times as she’s doggedly determined, but little else.
Where Ruskin really comes up short is in the portrayal of prime suspect Albert DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian). We hear about De Salvo’s history of perversion and run-ins with the law, and how he disguised himself as a maintenance worker to talk himself into his victim’s apartments, but we see little of him. (It was a similar problem in SHE SAID – – where was Harvey Weinstein? His character was all but left off camera.) Ruskin also struggles to illuminate the other suspects considered, particularly those that DeSalvo met in prison and might’ve been accomplices and/or copycats. All of that would take a miniseries to cover, including the shenanigans involved with De Salvo’s lawyer F. Lee Bailey, not to mention the DNA testing that still was being conducted for conclusive evidence well into this century. At times, it feels like ZODIAC did, chronicling the many ways to ‘lose your life’ to a serial killer, but it short-changes a deeper exploration like that.
There is a lot of palpable dread in much of the telling here, and Ruskin brings the 1960s to vivid life via superb production design and costuming. The director also wisely lingers on the silences in between various dialogue throughout. It creates effective tension and Knightley’s face speaks volumes merely reacting to what her character is hearing or processing. But the Strangler’s crimes just don’t feel as horrendous as they should here. Such psycho-sexual crimes were utterly shocking to the public in that era, but such devastation gets usurped some as the film focuses too much on its #MeToo harassment-at-work themes. Of course, men can be beasts in the most professional of settings, but the Strangler’s misogynistic horrors are still the bigger story. This is a well-meaning, true crime film, acted with commitment and crafted with precision, but it needed to haunt much, much more.