Keira Knightley heads a capable cast as the real-life reporter who defied sexism to break one of the biggest crime stories of the 60s
Considering the lurid details of it (let alone that it was never solved), it’s curious that Netflix, America’s number one source for grisly true crime documentaries, has yet to cover the Boston Strangler. It’s a fascinating story largely because the man who was long believed to be the Strangler, Albert DeSalvo, almost certainly didn’t act alone, and may not have even killed all of the thirteen women whose deaths were originally attributed to him. DNA evidence years after the fact conclusively linked DeSalvo, convicted of rape and later murdered in prison, to just one victim. At the time of his arrest, both police and the media were so eager to bring the city-wide hysteria to an end that they pointed at him for all the murders, only quietly conceding after DeSalvo was in jail that there was likely more than one strangler, and that the case was still open. Nearly sixty years later, the other twelve murders remain unsolved.
Hulu beat Netflix to the punch with Boston Strangler, which is less about the Strangler(s) and more about the reporter who first determined that the murders were the work of a serial killer (or killers), then became obsessed with solving them. Keira Knightley stars as Loretta McLaughlin, a writer for the Boston Record. Like most female journalists at the time, Loretta is stuck working the “lifestyle” beat, reporting on fashion and homemaking, which seems as dull an assignment as it would be now. Loretta longs to be on the crime beat, but such a gritty section of the paper is no place for a lady.
While going through some clippings, it occurs to Loretta that a trio of murders that have taken place across the city, all of the victims elderly women, may be connected. She all but begs her editor, Jack MacLaine (an appropriately grumpy Chris Cooper), to let her look into it and report on it, and he very reluctantly agrees. After her very first article meets with an angry rejoinder from the ineffectual Police Commissioner (Bill Camp), who claims she both reported incorrect information about the case and failed to identify herself as a reporter to her sources, Loretta is pulled from the story.
When a fourth murder occurs, however, she’s put back on it, this time partnered with Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), another aspiring investigative journalist. Jack, who grudgingly admires their stubborn ambition, looks at it both as an opportunity to give them a chance, and a savvy publicity stunt as the only newspaper in Boston to assign a couple of “girls” (both of whom are nearly 40) to write about a gruesome crime.
What starts as an exciting career change becomes a years-long journey that exposes them to police incompetence, resentful colleagues, patronizing detectives, anguished family members, horrific crime scenes, dropped and/or ignored leads, and seedy, dangerous suspects. Loretta’s dedication to the case takes a toll on her personal life, as her husband (Morgan Spector), initially supportive of her dream to become a legitimate journalist, quickly becomes less so when the case begins to take up virtually all of her time, not to mention when she starts receiving harassing phone calls at home. The deeper she digs, the more complicated the case becomes, as it’s clear that the man eventually arrested for the crimes, Albert DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian), couldn’t possibly have committed all of them.
As a single 110 minute movie (as opposed to stretched over six hour-long TV episodes), Boston Strangler remarkably doesn’t overstay its welcome. Also, thankfully, no one is trying an exceedingly Bawston accent. It’s competently directed, and while Keira Knightley wouldn’t be the first actor I’d think of when casting a crusading journalist in 1960s working class Boston, she’s mostly up to the task. It helps that her co-stars are the always reliable Carrie Coon (who, sadly, doesn’t really get that much to do), Chris Cooper, and Alessandro Nivola as a world-weary detective on the case. Despite the ghastly reality of them, the murders predominantly take place off-screen, and DeSalvo himself is a side character at best.
The problem is that if you typed “true crime docudrama” into ChatGPT, it would probably spit out a script similar to Boston Strangler. Writer/director Matt Ruskin sticks doggedly to the formula, right down to the “what happened to” postscript before the end credits roll. It wants very much to be Zodiac, even including a creepy scene in which Loretta visits a dodgy potential suspect at his house and believes herself to be in danger. She, like Jake Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith in the earlier film, is in way over her head, but refuses to let go of the case long after everyone else already has, even at the expense of her family.
Still, you could do far worse than model your movie after Zodiac, and, frankly, after last year’s Dahmer: Monster turned Jeffrey Dahmer into a misunderstood fanfic hero, a tasteful, understated docudrama that doesn’t put the killer front and center is a nice change of pace. Boston Strangler may not be anything you haven’t seen before, but it does it pretty well.
Boston Strangler premieres on Hulu March 17th.