"Boston Strangler" offers genre delights over political truths

Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) has it rough. She's a woman journalist in the early 1960s, in smoke-filled rooms with clattering keyboards, where her gender covers the fluffier topics like lifestyle and fashion. In Matt Ruskin's Boston Strangler, which premiered last week on Hulu, the material toll of dogged journalism can sometimes outweigh the benefits of the pursuit of truth.

Boston Strangler isn't the first film about the person or persons behind the murders of thirteen women (that honor belongs to Richard Fleischer's superlative 1968 thriller of the same name), but it is the first to center the journalistic efforts of Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole (Carrie Coon). McLaughlin is stuck on the lifestyle desk at the Record American, reviewing toasters while desperately angling for juicier assignments from the paper's editor, Jack Maclaine (Chris Cooper). At home with her husband James (Morgan Spector) and their three kids, McLaughlin has begun collecting news clippings of a series of murders of women she believes are tied together. It's just a hunch, however, and Maclaine is only willing to consent to Loretta's burgeoning obsession provided it's done in her free time.

After McLaughlin gets a little bit of traction, she draws significant ire from the Boston Police Department, and, in an effort to protect the paper from the perception that McLaughlin is "just a skirt," as the police commissioner (Bill Camp) labels her, Maclaine assigns Cole as her partner. The two seem to get further in their DIY investigation than the police themselves can, garnering a large readership both wanted and unwanted, and rope in the cynical Detective Conley (Alessandro Nivola) as an inside source. Thanks to its distinctively matted green palette, the film is easily comparable to David Fincher's similarly illicit crime films. Cinematographer Ben Kutchins certainly shoots the movie with an eerily similar intimacy, shooting characters with a sharp focus that only keeps the center of the frame in focus. As the police get closer to closing the case, the women's investigation of the same only becomes more elusive, even as the ghostlike Albert DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian, who is reliably creepy) confesses to the murders. 

Boston Strangler is a cozy film of familiar delight. This isn't necessarily a good thing; detective stories with such nasty and dark throughlines should ideally have more bite to them. It feels strange that, in spite of its greasy corners and consistent avoidance of the sunlight, the film never feels too dangerous. It also makes for an easy watch, but Ruskin misfires here, missing what's right there and ripe for the picking. Instead of focusing on the corollary between a series of murders with an obvious misogynistic undertone, or focusing on the institutional failure that leads to the frequency of domestic abuse, or the casualness with which patriarchal powers brush these concerns aside, Boston Strangler settles on the less prickly allegory of the difficulty of the home and work life balance. The film does artfully and appreciably demonstrate how a distinct disregard for female care in the office can lead to a deterioration of domesticity, but it's frustrating how the film refuses to connect the two dots itself has drawn on the chalkboard.

Because the movie has trouble dramatizing the cat and mouse tension endemic to the genre, it evolves into something more akin to Maria Schrader's She Said from last year or Tom McCarthy's Spotlight (2015); films which put honest journalism at the forefront with very sincere ideas about the nobility of truth telling. Yet Boston Strangler doesn't have those film's tactility for the labor of journalism. The film is too truncated to allow for such considerations, and in the process is just really, really easy. Though the actual story revolves around slippery evidence and a cobweb of unreliable witnesses and perpetrators, Loretta and Jean never actually struggle with their work. Yes, they have to ward off a healthy dose of sexism, but when they want to get something, they generally do. Further, the film neither indicts the system that produces a serial murderer of women nor the labor environments that prevent women from having the same respect as their male colleagues. Watching Knightley and Coon go about the simple story beats of Ruskin's script has its comforts, but when the movie does dip into questions of gender equity, it suddenly becomes overwrought, as in a jarring scene between Loretta and her husband over their respective jobs. One wishes the film gave more energy to the psychological toll Loretta and Jean accumulate, or drawing any kind of meaningful connection between the two and the men they chase. In the end, there's still a nice story – but perhaps being nice is exactly the problem.