BOSTON STRANGLER – Review
Do you recall what kind of viewing was all the rage when most of us were stuck indoors during the big pandemic a couple of years ago? Well, aside from a fictional fable of a chess whiz, it was true crime streaming TV. Of course, many folks still love to binge these often multipart documentaries. And one has become a docudrama, about that Tiger King. A good number of them concern that thriller staple of the last three or four decades, the serial killer. So when did this “boogeyman” enter the zeitgeist? You could go all the way back to Jack the Ripper. Well, this new film is about his American cousin who was a terror of the early 1960s. he even got the big Hollywood treatment 55 years ago. But here’s a new take in which he’s a supporting player since this story mostly concerns the two intrepid news reporters that aided in the capture of the BOSTON STRANGLER.
This version of the tale actually begins with a murder in a state far away from “Beantown” as Det. DeLine (Rory Cochrane) discovers the horrific aftermath of a disturbance call at an apartment building. From there we jump back a few years to the cold Eastern US streets in early 1963. Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) is becoming frustrated in her job writing for the Boston Record America. She yearns to be part of the “crime beat’, like Jean Cole (Carrie Coon). Instead, the paper’s editor Jack Maclaine (Chris Cooper) thinks that she (and other female reporters) are better suited to cover fashion shows and test new toasters. But Loretta’s been following a series of murders that have been “buried” from the front page. Since the Summer of 62,’ a couple of (mostly older) single women were found strangled with their pantyhose (looking like a “gift bow”) with almost no evidence or signs of forced entry into their homes. Loretta locates the local “cop bar” and finds a sympathetic ally in Det. Conley (Alessandro Nivola), who thinks his bosses are “dragging their heels”. Finally, Loretta brings her research to Jack, who dismisses it because he doesn’t want to antagonize the police and city hall. But the murders continue, and Jack finally gives her the go-ahead, but she’ll be paired with Jean. As their stories are now front page fodder, Jack decides to promote the pair as his crimebusting Lois Lanes. But will their byline and publicity stills put a target on their backs for the fiend they’ve labeled (replacing “phantom”), the Boston Strangler?
As you might have surmised, the story’s main character isn’t the title one, but rather it’s Knightley as the dogged reporter. We can almost see her Loretta roll her eyes when she’s handed a “puff piece” and later attempt to hide her annoyance at home with her kids and hubby. When she begins really digging, she plows through the sexist barriers that the police and her “higher-ups’ try to block her questions (shades of Hildy Johnson). Extra kudos to Knightly for nailing the Yank accent without drifting into the “caar in the yaard” cliches. Ditto for his ink-stained partner Coon as the seasoned writer Jean. She tries to temper Loretta’s zeal, but slowly we see that Jean’s own passions are re-ignited by the forced pairing. Plus her tenure gives her the chutzpah to go toe-to-toe with her grizzled overseer, editor Jack played with gruff and gravitas by the always compelling Cooper. He’s an old newshound who, bit by bit, sees the need for “fresh eyes” as he goes out on a limb, risking the ire of the owner and city hall, to scoop his rivals. Plus he’s not above a little “razzle dazzle’ as he sees a way to exploit his staff’s “novelty” (the duo as a “sidebar'”is an extra “grabber”). Also a bit terse is Nivola, as the best cop who doesn’t want to “make waves”, but has to get the killer, even if it means tossing “off the record” info to Loretta. We see a growing mutual respect build between the two, even as Conley tells her to tell the station operative that she’s his sister. And of note is Morgan Spector as Loretta’s husband James, who gushes with pride over his wife’s works until he winces as he eats away at her time with him and the kids.
Although it’s been several months since the previous film’s release, this could almost be seen as a “prequel in spirit” to the under-appreciated SHE SAID, as both involve hyper-focused female newspaper reporters. However, this new take on a long, long ago investigation has strong elements of a classic whodunit, while also highlighting the sexist attitudes in the days before the women’s liberation movement. In the newer film, we know who the “perp’ is, while Jean and Loretta wonder who may be “tailing” them, perhaps to add to an ever-growing morgue list. The women are brave, but they know when to skirt danger, as Loretta decline one creep’s invitation to his “lair”. This well-crafted true-crime drama is told with great skill by writer/director Matt Ruskin, eschewing the exploitative tone of the 1968 potboiler. The mood and the settings take us back to the early 60s, from the newsroom alive with a typewriter “symphony” to the cold, dark desolate streets that hide a maniac. Oh, if you think you know the real story from the Tony Curtis flick, well you’re in for lots of shockers. While last year’s movie has a true finality (though the Weinstein case is still active), this one hints that it may be too late for a real “solution”. But with this superb cast and expert execution, there should be a new spot on the list of newspaper crime dramas, alongside ZODIAC, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, and SPOTLIGHT for BOSTON STRANGLER.
3.5 Out of 4
BOSTON STRANGLER streams exclusively on Hulu beginning on March 17, 2023