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Boston Strangler review: a middling true crime drama

A woman stands in a hallway in Boston Strangler.
Boston Strangler
“Boston Strangler is an intriguing and well-acted true crime drama that tries in vain to recapture the same atmospheric tone and sense of danger as crime movie classics like Se7en and Zodiac.”
  • Keira Knightley's quietly commanding lead performance
  • Carrie Coon's confident supporting turn
  • A refreshingly quick pace throughout
  • An unsatisfyingly low-key conclusion
  • A drab color palette
  • A lack of urgency and stakes

David Fincher’s fingerprints are all over Boston Strangler, the new true crime drama from writer-director Matt Ruskin. Whether that’s by design 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 that acclaimed 2007 drama, though, Boston Strangler doesn’t have the patience to let the dread of the moment build before it sends Knightley’s Boston reporter running away from one of her suspect’s potential traps.

The film’s clear Zodiac homage isn’t the only instance where Boston Strangler comes up short of its own ambitions. On the one hand, the film’s refreshingly quick pace helps set it apart from so many of the other true crime dramas that have come out in recent years. On the other hand, Boston Strangler tries to fit so much material into its 112-minute runtime that it ends up feeling simultaneously overstuffed and slight. Not only does the film fail to give its capable 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 truly feel the emotional weight of its tragic true story.

Chris Cooper sits on a news desk in Boston Strangler.

Set in the early 1960s, Boston Strangler follows Knightley’s Loretta, a newsroom reporter who gets the chance to transition away from her paper’s Lifestyle column when she begins to report on the emergence of a serial killer in Boston. Her discovery that a string of recent murders are connected by several unnerving similarities results in Loretta becoming her paper’s lead reporter on “The Boston Strangler,” a real-life 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 journalists employed by their paper.

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

As its 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 ambitious reporter intent on nailing her first real investigation to a dangerously obsessed journalist intent on catching the Boston Strangler bears striking similarities to the arcs taken by characters like Jake Gyllenhaal’s puzzle-solving cartoonist in Zodiac and even Jodie Foster’s naïve but capable FBI trainee in 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 working character actresses. As Jean Cole, she brings a much-needed confidence to Boston Strangler that helps anchor its story in a kind of workmanlike professionalism that the film desperately 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. Rather than allowing Coon to share the spotlight as Boston Strangler’s co-lead, her Jean is instead relegated to being an important supporting figure in Loretta’s journey.

The film never makes enough time for any of its other talented supporting cast members, either. In addition to Coon, Chris Cooper, Alessandro Nivola, Morgan Spector, Bill Camp, and Rory Cochrane all show up in roles that feel disappointingly paper-thin. Despite his commanding screen presence, Spector’s performance as Loretta’s husband comes across as particularly one-note. Ruskin’s script doesn’t ever invest enough energy into exploring Loretta’s marriage, which greatly undercuts her husband’s lightning-fast transition from a supportive spouse to a disapproving nag.

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

Boston Strangler’s shallow depictions of many of its key relationships and moments are ultimately reflected by its drab visual palette. In an effort to further highlight the darkness of its story and setting, Ruskin and cinematographer Ben Kutchins apply a desaturated filter to Boston Strangler that makes the film look irritatingly muddy and underlit. Like many thrillers that have come before it, the film makes the mistake of sacrificing visual clarity purely in the hopes of unnecessarily over-emphasizing a grim kind of atmosphere that’s already established by its script.

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

Boston Strangler is available to stream now on Hulu.

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