Is there a place for female empowerment in true crime? Possibly, but Boston Strangler, a drama inspired by a 1960s string of murders committed against women, is not where you’ll find it.
Writer/director Matt Ruskin tries to balance the unmistakable misogyny of the murders themselves by centering the story not on the titular culprit (or culprits) but on intrepid lady journalist Loretta McLaughlin(Opens in a new tab), who first pointed at the possibility of a serial killer (notably before that term(Opens in a new tab) was even in the vernacular). However, Ruskin’s execution of his “inspired by true events” narrative seems less like a feminist historical thriller in the vein of Hidden Figures or She Said, and more a clumsy and ghoulish imitation of David Fincher’s seminal Zodiac. The resulting film is a crime against cinema on several counts.
Boston Strangler steals brazenly from Zodiac.
Credit: 20th Century Studios
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare any contemporary release to 2007’s Zodiac, which despite a total lack of Oscar nominations only gets better with age. Inspired by cartoonist turned civilian sleuth Robert Graysmith’s exhaustive book on the Zodiac Killer, Fincher’s film thrust audiences into the search for this murdering menace, not only following several of his aspiring captors but also embedding us with the victims minutes before the attacks. The specificity in his scenes — from “Hurdy Gurdy Man” on a car radio to the comical theatricality of an Aqua Velva cocktail — brought all the characters to vivid life, enveloping audiences in the intense fear and paranoia that made every man in Northern California a threatening suspect.
From these setups alone, it makes sense that Ruskin might have modeled Boston Strangler on Zodiac. His real-world killer(Opens in a new tab) likewise plagued a metropolis by attacking unsuspecting women with no apparent connection. The investigation also involved issues of police jurisdiction, contention with the press, and a plucky underdog investigator. This time instead of a socially awkward cartoonist (a sensationally gawky yet tense Jake Gyllenhaal) underestimated for all of his quirks, the protagonist is an ambitious journalist (a dedicatedly prim but determined Keira Knightley), underestimated because she’s a woman.
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These two unlikely heroes even share the experience of receiving threatening phone calls replete with heavy breathing, as well as a scene where each follows a suspect into a dark cavernous space while chasing a lead. However, Ruskin does not possess the gravitas or patience to construct tension and character as Fincher did. This narrow escape plays with goosebump-pricking chills in Zodiac, but in Boston Strangler, the scene is shorter and clumsier, with the suspect being so creepy from the start that we’re immediately alert and urging Loretta to flee. Doesn’t this woefully naive reporter read her own damn articles? Rather than masterful visual storytelling grounded by complex characters, Boston Strangler is a series of brusque gestures and coarse cliches.
Keira Knightley can’t overcome the film’s flimsy self-serving, white feminism.
Credit: 20th Century Studios
Forget the rich world of San Francisco, where newsrooms bustle with colorful characters and lovers’ lane buzzes with sexual tension and relatable dramas. Ruskin’s Boston of the 1960s is populated with tired archetypes, many of them staunch reminders of patriarchic oppression. There’s the glowering boss (Chris Cooper), who urges Loretta away from crime and toward reviews of home goods; the smirking cop (Alessandro Nivola), who treats every bad turn in the case as a new game; and the grumbling husband (Morgan Spector), who exists solely to remind us that Loretta has responsibilities at home too, like childcare and telling her husband he’s one of the good ones.
While peeks into a female reporter’s homelife were grounding in She Said and served to remind audiences of the immense emotional labor these women took on professionally and personally, similar scenes of domesticity in Boston Strangler are achingly conventional. Loretta has no poignant scenes with her children, and she mostly seems to endure her husband than enjoy him. Either Ruskin is bored of the concept of a woman’s role at home or is trying to reflect Loretta’s boredom. The latter might be lauded if her character were well defined elsewhere. Instead, Loretta’s arc is littered with cringe-worthy details used as shorthand for being a Strong Female Character(Opens in a new tab) in lieu of actual character development.
Surrounded by female reporters on the lifestyle section, her furrowed brow and nose for hard-hitting murder news defines her as being emphatically not like the other girls. Thus, she initially grimaces at finding there’s already a female reporter covering “serious” news. (Carrie Coon, as real-life reporter Jean Cole, is solid even in this thankless mentor role). The rivalry between female colleagues raises its ugly head, but before you can hiss “Catfight!” the pair inevitably becomes swift allies. After all, they can be not like the other girls…together!
Loretta’s motivation for pursuing the case seems mostly wrung from a desperation to get a decent byline, which is a potentially compelling character flaw of blind ambition. But then Ruskin quickly swerves her hard into rah-rah speeches about patriarchy and gendered violence, as if female empowerment was her goal the entire time. Giving her obsession with these horrid crimes a glittery, altruistic veneer further erodes what might have been a compelling story of conflicting motivations.
It’s easy to imagine that girl-power monologue, heavy-handed and abrupt as it is, might have been the lure for Knightley’s involvement. To her credit, she’s earnest in the role, even if her attempt at an American accent rings a bit too crisp to feel authentic. As the story spins into a complicated third act, Knightley is lost amid the plot twists and increasingly grim directorial choices that make Boston Strangler feel painfully dated.
Boston Strangler makes a gross spectacle of real victims.
Credit: 20th Century Studios
Again, we look to Zodiac, where Fincher weighted grisly murder scenes with moments from the victims’ lives, allowing us to slide into their moonlight tryst or sun-dappled picnic and feel the impossible loss of each death. He made them real people for his audience, reminding us of their humanity and recovering them from time and splashy headlines. Ruskin does no such service to the victims in his movie.
Crime scene photos giddily spill forth the gory “decorative” details, while hushed voices whisper those elements that couldn’t be shown, even in an R-rated movie. These victims are summed up as widows, roommates, or single. Their names are dropped like crass confetti, but no effort is made to show who they were. The closest we get is seeing one victim prepare a bath before she’s ambushed, but even this gesture feels just vaguely feminine rather than expressive of who she was. So these women — their deaths, their names, their lives, their pain — are regarded by the camera as little more than a morbid spectacle, which is jarring against the film’s supposed message.
From there, Ruskin’s script relishes in the worst impulses of true crime, with Loretta spinning dark poetry in her reports and sowing fear in the public. This might actually be pulled from her real writing, but the conversation around the ethics of true crime reporting (and consumption) has come a long way since 1962. It’s shameful that Ruskin refuses to respect that.
Even the color palette of his film rankles. A dull grey overcasts every scene, perhaps meant to evoke seriousness and drama. To me, it read like a thin layer of dust, suggesting the patina of the past that means these concerns for women’s safety and sanity are merely distant, unpleasant memories. As if to say, “Back then, women were casually disrespected at work, lived in fear that any random man might snatch away their bodily autonomy, or kill them. Can you imagine?”
Yes, Matt. We can.
Boston Strangler debuts on Hulu March 17.