REVIEW: ‘Boston Strangler’ (2023)

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Carrie Coon and Keira Knightley in 'Boston Strangler' (2023). Credit: 20th Century Studios

Credit: 20th Century Studios

Debuting on Hulu in the US and Disney Plus in the UK and other territories, Boston Strangler tells the true story of reporters Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) and Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), who uncover and share the truth about the titular killer — and the police incompetence that dogged the investigation.

(L-R): Keira Knightley as Loretta McLaughlin and Carrie Coon as Jean Cole in 20th Century Studios' BOSTON STRANGLER, exclusively on Hulu. Photo by Claire Folger. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Credit: 20th Century Studios.

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A slasher this isn’t. At the core of the film is something more akin to Spotlight (2015) or David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007): a tale of dogged journalism, fighting police bureaucracy and misconduct while pursuing the facts themselves to draw them to light in print. But the film’s commitment to showing the work (and the struggle against the backward sexual politics of the time) doesn’t rob the movie of horror.

The killings themselves are presented in stark reality. Muffled screams through adjacent walls, flickering hallway lights as you heard the dull thud of a body hitting the floor. The scares come in the banality. These murders happen in apartment buildings and hallways like any other; like all the hallways you see McLaughlin step down.

Alessandro Nivola as Detective Conley in 20th Century Studios' BOSTON STRANGLER, exclusively on Hulu. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Credit: 20th Century Studios

Boston is presented as a cold city of shadows and increasing fear. As the Strangler’s crimes continue, those shadows draw longer, and begin to stretch into McLaughlin’s family home. There’s a throughline of how she navigates a shifting family role to accommodate her new career in crime writing — it’s not particularly deep, but it presents her husband James (Morgan Spector) as progressively supportive but increasingly strained.

The moments where McLaughlin’s case creeps through her front door are decidedly chilling. Anonymous phone calls. Figures watching from beneath yellowing streetlamps. Knightley plays her with enough stoicism and determination that you believe she wants nothing more than to crack open the truth. But these encroachments snap her to a dangerous reality, where the pursuit of her work and the editorial choices of her paper cause fissures in her composure.

Carrie Coon as Jean Cole in 20th Century Studios' BOSTON STRANGLER, exclusively on Hulu. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Credit: 20th Century Studios

She’s the lead here, then, with less interior work given to Carrie Coon’s Cole, despite being an equally fascinating figure. A well-honed investigative reporter, we first see her disguised in a nurse’s outfit, fresh off a story about abuse in the care system. She’s chameleonic, able to readily adopt the brusque attitude required to navigate the newsroom and deal with the editorial staff, here in the form of Chris Cooper’s Jack Maclaine and Robert John Burke’s business-minded Eddie Holland.

McLaughlin and Cole’s friendship develops in the field, forged over dogging drinking cops for snippets of information or pawing through dusty records. To have seen more of this and how they both found a way through the sexism of the Sixties (McLaughlin’s primary battle is getting the opportunity to leave toaster reviews on the lifestyle desk and get validation for her investigative skills) would have been welcome. But Coon gives you a decent impression; a woman who knows the rules she must play by to achieve what she can, and turn her gender to her advantage, in a world that would seek to wield it against her. They’re lessons she’ll teach McLaughlin too.

(L-R): Keira Knightley as Loretta McLaughlin and Chris Cooper as Jack MacLaine in 20th Century Studios' BOSTON STRANGLER, exclusively on Hulu. Photo by Claire Folger. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Credit: 20th Century Studios

We discover the increasing failures of the police force as the story unfolds, but the force itself is represented mainly by Alessandro Nivola’s Detective Conley. Conley has good intentions in a broken system. He’s McLaughlin’s key source and channel of information from the inside. As suspects present themselves, Conley becomes a way for her to indirectly steer the investigation.

And there are plenty of suspects to match the escalating body count. Avenues of investigation mirror the winding streets and dank tenements; leads grow as cold as the New England chill. The film clocks in at just over two hours, but this is a sprawling pursuit, told over years and with the triumphs and failures that come with it.

Carrie Coon and Keira Knightley in 'Boston Strangler' (2023). Credit: 20th Century Studios
Credit: 20th Century Studios

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Boston Strangler is an icily composed, methodical exploration of the determination of two women, the failures of the system, and the sexist environment which became a verdant hunting ground for a killer. Some aspects are well trodden, and not everything gets the depth it perhaps could have, but it is smartly put together and bolstered by rich performances and moments of chilling, everyday horror. 

 

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