Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon star in the biopic-style film about the hacks who first named the man (or men) preying on Boston women in the 1960s. ‘Inspired by’ true events, Boston Strangler follows Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley doing a pretty good American accent) in her quest to draw the city’s attention to the string of murders taking place right under their noses.
It could be said that the film is just another one in a line-up of films about righteous, plucky journalist versus the corrupt police, but that wouldn’t be entirely – this film poses questions about modern life that we still face today. During the course of the film Loretta’s marriage breaks down, yet it feels as though it didn’t have to end that way.
Her husband (Morgan Spector) is initially supportive of her work as a journalist at the Record American, until her career really takes off. Loretta turns her token female position as a product reviewer at low-level newspaper into a cutting edge investigative role – one which becomes instrumental in unravelling the Boston Strangler case. Indeed, it is Loretta who first coins the killer’s nickname, and who treats the killings as though they were connected – police don’t even take note at first.
It is also Loretta who notices the crimes’ similarities, which are pretty obvious, to be honest, but the police weren’t picking up on it until she came along. Each woman was strangled in her own home and left with a pair of stockings wrapped round her neck in a bow—‘like a gift’, Loretta notes.
Police incompetence and corruption know no end—Commissioner McNamara is the real villain of the piece, repeatedly failing to communicate with police departments in other cities where similar crimes are occurring. His misogyny prevents him from seeing Loretta and her female co-worker as the useful tools they could be to the police. Instead Loretta forms an informal rapport with jaded Detective Conley (Alessandro Nivola), who himself adds almost nothing to the case (or the film).
Carrie Coon on the other hand is always a pleasure to watch. She plays ‘no-nonsense’ women often, or should I say just competent, focused women from the Midwest (like in Fargo Season 3). Here she plays real-life undercover journalist Jean Cole, Loretta’s mentor and friend. Jean gives Loretta advice about work-life balance – nobody has their shit together either, is her advice essentially. No woman who works and has kids can keep it together all of the time. It is interesting that Loretta’s husband does support her in work at first, pointing out that she got the scoop on the Strangler before the Globe and the other big papers. But his support wanes as Loretta’s success keeps her away from home more and more. How’s he supposed to get his promotion if there’s no one at home to look after the kids? Instead of ignoring the children when their existence is inconvenient, this film makes family life a central theme. Life is messy and full of difficult decisions.
Boston itself looks grim but glamourous in a jaded film-noir kind of way – though it seems to be perpetually winter. The sense of danger for the two women is strongly felt when their bylines are published alongside their photographs. Loretta objects at first but is persuaded. Then she starts getting creepy voiceless phone calls and letters through her front door mail slot. She is alone at home with the children, with nothing but a baseball bat for protection.
The pressure drives her to drink more and more—not wine by herself, but whiskey with Jean at the bar, like men usually do in film noirs. I liked this. The final image is of them sitting at the bar, chinking whiskey glasses and drinking in companionable silence.
The credits reveal that Loretta eventually divorced her husband and went on to become an award-winning writer at the Boston Globe, while Jean carried on as an investigative journalist for another 30 years.
The strangler murders have never fully been solved – the criminal Albert DeSalvo confesses to all of them even though he can’t have done all because for part of the time he was locked up. Police can’t convict him for the murders either so they keep in prison on other charges. They’re fine with that, but Loretta isn’t. One of the victim’s mothers isn’t either—how could she be, when no one has been held to account for murdering her daughter Beverley?
The film lacks surprise or innovation, despite the plot’s twists and turns. Loretta at one point is in physical danger in a potential killer’s creepy basement, just like Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs—but with none of Lambs’ chill or horror. It feels like a token nod to a classic and superior serial killer film. Boston Strangler is more the tasteful historical-type depiction of a serial killer. But for that, it loses its edge. Why can’t a historical film be brutal too? I love historical fiction but it so often plays it safe. Maybe filmmakers think their audience is too old or staid for real punchy drama.
Ridley Scott produced, and he always makes beautiful historical sets, and rarely makes films that feel exciting and new. This one is predictable—Loretta is on to Albert DeSalvo around the middle of the film, so we know that can’t be the whole story. Back we go to the creepy guy earlier in the film, which they’re hoping we forgot about. It is incredibly difficult to maintain believability and keep the audience guessing in a serial killer film, and only the very best succeed.
Not many can match The Silence of the Lambs for horror, suspense and pathos. Perhaps Boston Strangler wasn’t going for that though—the scenes depicting the actual killings are not frightening or memorable. The film is more interested in the two journalists, and women juggling work and home life. The serial killer part is just the setting.
Keira Knightley is better here than almost anywhere else. In her American accent she is much less susceptible to over-expression. Overall the film raises relevant questions but it doesn’t make us feel very much—and for that it falls short.
Feature image: Disney+
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