For decades, police procedurals were a mainstay of the film industry. Whether ripped from the headlines or fashioned entirely from authors’ imaginations, viewers should expect crime dramas to be founded less in mystery and more in the long arm of justice eventually triumphing—whether via the investigative prowess of law enforcement, crusading journalists, or both.
Strangely, while true crime has become more popular in nonfiction, particularly on streaming platforms, single-serving film presentations have declined.
In the classic American tradition, when it comes to murder, it appears that viewers would want a plus-sized serving, thank you very much.
In this slot comes the brilliantly ambitious but horribly malformed Hulu original Boston Strangler, which depicts the narrative of reporting on the killings of 13 unmarried women aged 19 to 85 between 1962 and 1964. The film, written and directed by Matt Ruskin, strives to serve many narrative masters but comes out as hazy and fuzzy.
Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) is a lifestyle reporter for the Boston Record American who aspires to write more than a toaster review. With no mentor or obvious path for professional growth, she’s left to put clipped pieces from other journals that have scooped her and her coworkers on a newsroom bulletin board.
Loretta eventually persuades herself to cover a series of unsolved local killings on her own time. The related nature of the deaths sparks a media frenzy as she confirms some shared information. Loretta is teamed with Jean Cole (Carrie Coon) by her editor Jack MacLaine when additional murders occur (Chris Cooper). Albert DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian), Daniel Marsh (Ryan Winkles), and George Nassar are among the suspects and associated persons identified by the pair (Greg Vrotsos).
Along the way, Loretta & Jean—both married and with children, but fully committed to their work—grapple with a decent bit of the garden-variety misogyny of the age.
As their reporting uncovers how a lack of interdepartmental information exchange and simple professional follow-through by police agencies is hurting the direction (and veracity) of the inquiry, they confront structural opposition from comfortably aligned power systems.
Crown Heights, a biographical drama featuring Lakeith Stanfield and Nnamdi Asomugha about a falsely imprisoned killer, is among Ruskin’s films. Ruskin attempts to dissect a broad, convoluted case and its interaction with societal assumptions in this chapter.
On a technical level, he is excellent. Ben Kutchins, the cinematographer, offers interesting work. Yet the film’s production design and costume reflect the oppressiveness of the way things are and the tension over changing times, in their own centers of utility and stylish drabness, respectively.
Ruskin also understands how to give important context in economic terms. Two moments with Boston Police Department Commissioner Ed McNamara (Bill Camp), including one with him surrounded by flashbulbs, saying reporters they’re going to arrest the murderers, teach us all we need to know about law enforcement’s preference for image protection over action.
Yet, Boston Strangler lives in a convoluted jungle of plotting and overall period mood, with its heavy attention on jurisdictional jockeying and intrepid reporting. Its larger narrative goal is never clear, and the characters, as depicted here, are just sketchy.
None of the fatalities are significant because we are not expected to empathize with the victims. If the major audience stand-ins were more interesting, the statistics wouldn’t matter as much. While the film does a fantastic job of fleshing out the pressures and strains placed on Loretta and Jean, they remain largely mysterious as multifaceted characters. They just denote a kind. Knightley and, especially, Coon try their best but are let down by what’s on the page.
The most effective interaction is between Loretta and Detective Conley (Alessandro Nivola), who meet on occasion to discuss the killings.
With reluctant mutual respect, both acknowledge the other’s tenacity as well as the extent to which the other’s work may expand beyond the boundaries of their own.
Ruskin’s film lacks captivating, outstanding parts because it relies mostly on explaining rather than showing. For many stretches, it merely plods along, providing superficial, surface-level engagement. When information is needed, a phone call from a New York police officer or a chance meeting with a chatty local cop from another parish does the work.
As a result, the film may be most fascinating on the edges—for elements that aren’t technically on the screen. When set up beside 1968’s The Boston Strangler, this updated rendition might serve as an interesting sociological case study on the history of real crime entertainment.
That picture, directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Tony Curtis (in a Golden Globe-nominated performance), revolved around the head investigator, John Bottomly (Henry Fonda), who persuaded DeSalvo to make a dramatic confession.
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It was widely panned for its questionable framing and shaky link with known historical facts, and it also included a billboard with the phrase “Why did 13 women gladly open their doors to the Boston Strangler?” It would almost certainly result in a lot of internet scolding nowadays.
The ladies who broke the news and reported it is the focus of the 2023 version of this story. It should and should be more intriguing, but all it delivers is a different muddy rendition of a difficult situation.