The Boston Strangler holds a place in history alongside other notorious killers such as Jack the Ripper and the Zodiac. Like those unsolved serial murder cases, there remains much doubt about the true identity of the Boston Strangler and particularly whether he was, in fact, just one person. Boston Strangler, the new film from writer-director Matt Ruskin (Crown Heights) follows the journalistic investigation into the slayings, which left the city gripped with fear. Ruskin presents the facts as they are understood while acknowledging the degree to which they’re still undiscovered, keeping the suspense of the film centered around the constant uncertainty regarding the truth — and who doesn’t want to see it come to light.
Keira Knightley dons an American accent to play Loretta McLaughlin, a reporter at the Boston-based newspaper Record American whose superior investigative instincts are often wasted on the flighty topics her editors believe should be covered by women. Despite the attitudes of the time, Loretta finds herself drawn to the case of the Boston Strangler, and convinces her editor (Chris Cooper) to let her follow the story. With the help of a more seasoned colleague, Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), Loretta begins knocking down doors in pursuit of the truth, determined to push harder every time someone appears to have something to hide.
Boston Strangler boasts a tremendous cast brimming with so much talent that it almost doesn’t know what to do with it all, if only because the film runs under two hours and can’t devote enough time to the entire ensemble. Alessandro Nivola, Rory Cochrane, Bill Camp, and Robert John Burke are among those who play law enforcement figures, while Luke Kirby and David Dastmalchian also make an impression in less savory roles. Morgan Spector plays Loretta’s forward-thinking (for the era) husband, who unfortunately doesn’t get to interact with his onscreen spouse from The Gilded Age, Coon, whose character’s personal life is also given short shrift.
All these players enhance a story that is primarily about Loretta’s perseverance as a reporter and her remarkable ability to follow her gut wherever it takes her. There is a moodiness to this film that grounds it very well in its period setting and the general feel of the era. There are numerous shots of women allowing a man — purporting to be a repairman sent by their building’s super — into their homes, and each comes with an intense sense of dread given the violent murder that is likely to ensue. Even as Loretta inches closer to a breakthrough, that unknown figure is busy out there destroying countless lives.
Technical elements combine to make this an involving, unnerving viewing experience, even at home on Hulu. Ruskin reunites with his Crown Heights cinematographer Ben Kutchins and together, they create a stark visual palette for Boston Strangler, which features music by Paul Leonard-Morgan, production design by John P. Goldsmith, and costumes by Arjun Bhasin that surely enhance the moody atmosphere of the film, which has all the ingredients of a tight and engaging thriller.
Though the film finds Knightley at her most serious, it’s something she’s able to pull off very well, even if her impressive American accent may be distracting to those who don’t expect her to sound like she’s from Massachusetts. Her role here is similar to the one she played in Official Secrets, which also found her real-life character pushing back against a system eager to avoid finding answers. Though Coon is always great, she’s not put to much use here, with the focus remaining on a perfectly competent Knightley. To those who appreciate the true crime genre, this film should be satisfactory — a solid streaming product that makes good use of its various pieces and the lingering theories that still haunt this case. Perhaps one day we’ll know whether this movie put it together…
Boston Strangler is now streaming on Hulu courtesy of 20th Century Studios.