Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon are on the case in ‘Boston Strangler’

These are the things I like, based solely on some romantic notion I’ve always had about the newspaper business. A colleague, who has far more journalistic experience than I, described this film as “terribly boring”. Sensing that you might come to that conclusion, writer-director Matt Ruskin introduces several re-enactments that show either the Boston Strangler at work or gruesome post-mortem photos of the victims.

In my short time here, I have found Bostonians to be very proud of their city; they love seeing it on screen and reading about it. The Boston Strangler’s recreation of 1960s Boston will appeal to those who lived through that era or want to compare then and now. Cinematographer Ben Cutchins captures the paranoid feel of a thriller made at the time, which complements the overall mise-en-scène. As a result, you feel transported.

Alessandro Nivola as Detective Conley in The Boston Strangler.20th Century Studies

When Ruskin was on Boston Public Radio recently, he discussed how many of the neighborhoods where his film is set are visually not too far from their original appearance. By changing the cars to reflect the period, it takes the viewer back in time. That level of realism extends to the film’s interiors: the kitchen where McLaughlin argues with her husband James (Morgan Spector) and the bars where she drinks alcohol and trades information with Cole and Detective Conley (Alessandro Nivola) seem accurately rendered.

Conley is one of several side characters that McLaughlin and Cole interact with during their investigation. He’s the only cop who will talk to them after they reveal in print how little the Boston police are doing to catch a killer who has killed five women so far in The Boston Strangler. Other supporting characters include Daniel (Ryan Winkles), a sinister stalker who is the ex-boyfriend of one of the victims, and Albert DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian), a rapist with a long rap sheet.

That last name may ring a bell, especially if you’ve seen the 1968 Tony Curtis film The Boston Strangler or have a cursory knowledge of the case. DeSalvo confessed to the murders, although he was never actually charged with these crimes. In 2013, a DNA match was made between DeSalvo and the murder of Mary Sullivan, and he is now believed to have killed at least 11 women in the Boston area in the early 1960s. This film questions whether De Salvo acted alone or was assisted by other people.

If The Boston Strangler had followed the investigation-heavy path of previous films like Spotlight (2015) and last year’s She Said, it might have worked better. It may also have alienated audiences; probably anticipating this, Ruskin often resorts to horror movie tactics. At one point, the film depicts McLaughlin visiting a potential suspect’s apartment as if she were entering Freddy Krueger’s boiler room in A Nightmare on Elm Street. The murders themselves, although short and without the most vivid details, are staged like scenes in a murder movie.

When The Boston Strangler focuses on the two journalists who wrote about the case, it’s quite engaging. We see how difficult it is for women to be taken seriously in a newsroom dominated by men. McLaughlin is given an article to test the latest toaster, for example. So when she discovers a pattern in the first few murders, she has to fight to be taken seriously.

Carrie Coon as reporter Jean Cole in The Boston Strangler.20th Century Studies

Performance wise, Knightley is good, but Coon is really good. As the “rookie” and the cynical veteran respectively, the two actors elevate familiar tropes. They add a new layer of paint to a dynamic we’ve seen many times.

Movies about real-life serial killers tend to be unpleasant at best, exploitative at worst. The Boston Strangler throws the catchphrase “based on a true story” across the top of the film, leaving us to wonder what is and isn’t accurate.

As luck would have it, I caught Ruskin on WGBH that day. Sitting in the green room, I heard “BPR” co-host Jim Broad ask the director what he meant by “inspired by a true story,” a phrase readers know annoys me to no end. “You invariably have to take liberties,” Ruskin replied, “just to try to tell a story that spans several years in the form of a feature film.”

If The Boston Strangler wants us to buy into its multiple killer theory, it helps if we can trust this movie enough to believe what it’s selling us.



Written and directed by Matt Ruskin. Starring: Keira Knightley, Carrie Coon, Chris Cooper, Ryan Winkles, David Dastmalchian, Morgan Spector, Alessandro Nivola. On Hulu. 112 minutes. R (language, violence, graphic crime pictures)

Audie Henderson is the film critic for the Boston Globe. He can be reached at [email protected]

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