I love a good procedural. Whether it’s cops or the FBI catching a serial killer, investigative journalists on the hunt for the truth, or sometimes a merging of both, the genre is just inherently watchable. There are bad ones, of course, but even a decent one is enjoyable. At the same time, when one is merely competent and watchable, there’s a sense of a missed opportunity. That’s the case of Boston Strangler, a solid yet wildly unspectacular procedural/journalism film. It does enough right to warrant a recommendation, but there’s clearly a feeling that something better could have been made with this same cast and premise.
Boston Strangler is clearly in the shadow of superior work like She Said, Spotlight, and Zodiac. It doesn’t come close to those films, but it’s trafficking in a similar field. The movie is workmanlike, unlike those, and that’s part of what separates them. Even so, there’s two solid lead performances that make it impossible to just dismiss out of hand.
Set in, you guessed it, Boston in the early 1960s, this is based on the infamous Boston Strangler murders of the era. Here, we’re following the true story of Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley), who was the first reporter to connect a serious of murders in the city. Seeing the killings as connected when no one else does, she’s able to break the story of the Strangler, even as her editor Jack Maclaine (Chris Cooper) is skeptical. Pairing Loretta with fellow reporter Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), the two begin looking into the investigation, which seems to be lacking.
As Loretta and Jean pursue the truth, they also are challenging the sexism of the early 1960s, not just in the journalism world, but in law enforcement as well. Reporting on the city’s most notorious serial killer and tirelessly attempting to keep women of Boston informed, they do so at their own peril. Assisted by Detective Conley (Alessandro Nivola), they continually make progress, even when their home lives suffer. When Albert DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian) is arrested and pegged as the killer, the case and story seems closed, only Loretta is not convinced. Her continued pursuit has ramifications that still ring true to this day.
Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon are the highlights. The former is dogged journalistic integrity, while the latter is spunk and fire. Together, they make a good pair, even though the movie takes a while to get them there. Once they’re worked as a duo, things pick up. David Dastmalchian is suitably creepy, while Chris Cooper and Alessandro Nivola do their best with very underwritten roles. Supporting players here include Robert John Burke, Rory Cochrane, Morgan Spector, Stephen Thorne, and more.
Filmmaker Matt Ruskin makes things dark here, both tonally and visually. It’s flat direction, though leaving plenty of room for his cast, particularly Coon and Knightley, to showcase their wares. There’s also his depiction of the killings, which feels somewhat unnecessary, considering the journalistic focus. His screenplay, however, is more of a mixed bag. Elements work, and once the third act kicks into gear, a whole new layer emerges, but it’s bumpy getting there. Boston Strangler doesn’t have any huge highs or deep lows, so it mostly just hums along at a mild ebb. It leads to a less than ideally satisfying experience, but one with more that works than doesn’t.
Boston Strangler has a competency about it that prevents it from ever being a misfire, but once it gets into its third act twists, there’s a clear break towards something with more potential. That potential is never reached, but enough works here to warrant a very mild recommendation. Solid acting and an unsettling premise leads the way, so as long as your expectations are kept in check, you’ll find enough here to like.