A Unique Perspective on an Infamous Serial Killer


Let’s face it, true crime stories can be a little gross. There’s a kind of ‘should I be enjoying this’ feeling (that’s thrilling for some) when watching Monster: The Jeffery Dahmer Story on Netflix or listening to the My Favorite Murder podcast. With its 2,720 episodes, Dateline has brought about 2,700 murders to audiences, televising the pain of thousands of victims. The ethical problem of true crime is how to present a real story in an enlightening or entertaining fashion without cheaply exploiting the heartbreak of everyone involved, and most projects honestly fail that test.

Boston Strangler, the new true crime film on Hulu, undeniably passes it, though. Of course, Matt Ruskin’s movie fittingly sacrifices some of the schadenfreude and sick thrills of similar stories in the process; you can’t have your cake and kill it, too. It makes up for the lack of visceral violence and suspense with interesting characters, strong performances, expert filmmaking, and genuine compassion and empathy. You won’t need to take a shower after watching this one. It’s a nice alternative to all the Making a Murderer-style programming, and a historically accurate one, to boot.

The Boston Strangler Case and the Reporters Who Broke It

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The case of the Boston Strangler terrified and mystified citizens of the titular Beantown between 1962 and 1964, as 13 women were murdered similarly and without any suspects charged. In fact, nobody has ever been convicted of the killings; they were attributed to someone after he confessed to the murders and was convicted of different crimes, but no hard evidence had ever substantiated his claims until DNA results in 2013 linked him to one of the murders. To this day, people still believe there were others involved.

As such, it’s a pretty mysterious case. What makes it more interesting is the fact that the Boston Police Department didn’t exactly do the best job on the case. Learning about the serial killer, naming him, and piecing together all the clues that pointed toward suspects was mostly thanks to the dedicated, highly risky investigative reporting of two women for the Boston Record American (now known as the embattled Boston Herald). Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole were very different women from distinct backgrounds, and with separate journalistic styles, but they came together to investigate this case better than many of the finest detectives in the city.

Related: Exclusive: Boston Strangler Director Matt Ruskin on His True Crime Thriller

They were women, though, which meant that they were looked down upon by the people in charge of the paper and by most of the police. Their social and family lives faced many problems during a time when women were conditioned to stay at home, take care of the kids, and cook; these two women wanted to work and were doing something important for the whole city. If Boston Strangler doesn’t exactly follow the lurid details of each murder and get into the nastier specifics, it makes up for this by delving deep into the characters of these female reporters, their lives, and their process.

Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon Star

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Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon (who should simply star in everything, she’s that good) are excellent as Loretta and Jean, respectively. Loretta is a bit more prim and green; she studied journalism at Boston University and is a traditionally attractive housewife who actually wants to put her talents to use for once. Jean is more respected in the industry, having started as a ‘copy boy’ immediately after high school at the age of 18. Coon is incredible at conveying the kind of tired acceptance of the patriarchal newsroom with a nonetheless quietly resilient attitude, constructed by decades of doing the work. Loretta, on the other hand, is more naive and doesn’t always understand that people will get in the way of her doing the work.

After being initially stand-offish, the two develop a fine working relationship that draws on each of their different skills. Chris Cooper is very good as their editor, Jack MacLaine, who has a legitimate interest in the news and his writers but must also mediate between them and the corporate bosses. Boston native Alessandro Nivola is wonderfully authentic as Detective Conley, who has a bit more compassion and patience than many of his colleagues, but this is not a story about the police. The film belongs to Knightley and Coon, because even more than being a film about a serial killer, Boston Strangler is a journalism movie.

The Accurate Boston Strangler Honors Good Journalism

20th Century StudiosHulu

Interestingly, William Goldman wrote a book about the Boston Strangler in 1964 (which was turned into one of two movies about the case released in 1968), and Ruskin’s Boston Strangler feels a lot like another work of Goldman’s — All the President’s Men. The way Redford and Hoffman worked together in that classic film about journalism feels successfully replicated here.

Meanwhile, the dark, noir-inflected palette and meticulously accurate period details of Boston Strangler bring to mind Zodiac and that film’s cat-and-mouse investigation into a murderer, while its emphasis on the struggles of women in the workplace during that era (and the reflections it makes with today’s climate) reminds one of the otherwise drastically different Hidden Figures or Working Girl.

It’s an interesting hodgepodge that may not be as unnervingly disturbing as some true crime thrillers, or as emotionally melodramatic as others, but one that certainly works on its own. It’s a patient, sensitive, and yet still dark and moody history lesson and an opportunity to watch two great actors portray the skills of unsung women journalists. Produced by 20th Century Studios, Scott Free Productions, and LuckyChap Entertainment, Boston Strangler will be available on Hulu beginning March 17.


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