On paper, Boston Strangler sounds like another great true crime thriller. Starring Keira Knightley as Loretta McLaughlin of the Record American, the film chronicles her journalistic investigation into the story of the Boston Strangler, a serial killer who targets older women and strangles them with a scarf on their neck.
With Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), McLaughlin tries to track down who the killer may be. All evidence points to Albert DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian), but other murders happen while he is imprisoned. This is another Zodiac killer, where the perpetrator might have never been found, and the one they think did it may have nothing to do with the events themselves.
Read: SEE IT: 20th Century Studios’ ‘Boston Strangler’ Trailer and Poster
In many ways, Boston Strangler desperately wants to be the new David Fincher’s Zodiac. But Fincher’s film is so technically masterful, methodically paced, and wonderfully acted that Boston Strangler never once matches the genius of that film. The atmosphere is there, with the score giving a terrifying vibe to the proceedings, but the technical craft doesn’t feel as strong as in Zodiac.
The cinematography, in particular, is a mesh between Lifetime’s version of Zodiac and a Zack Snyder fan tribute. That’s the best I can describe without saying that it doesn’t look good because it really doesn’t. Most of the murders represented in the film are shown off-screen, which is the way to go.
This is not a film that should glorify their victims, and yet director Matt Ruskin shows one instance of a victim being brutally slain by the film’s titular subject, and that’s where the film went into exploitative territory. There was absolutely no reason to do this, especially if you’ve conditioned audiences for most of the runtime that none of the murders are being explicitly shown. You don’t need to show anything – the murders were already incredibly brutal and senseless, as some characters implicitly told them in the film.
It also doesn’t help that most of the movie follows a rather standard investigative journalism story: the journalist whose editor (Chris Cooper) doesn’t want to put in the investigative section, even though she has something that needs to be shown on her hands. The police chief (Bill Camp) reassures the town that everything is fine until more murders arise. The detective (Alessandro Nivola) tells the journalist that there’s a bigger picture underneath the series of murders, especially with how the police department is covering up their ineptitudes. These elements are found in most investigative journalism films, and Boston Strangler never once hides its clichéd story. There’s no reinvention of the formula nor a good sense of pace to hook the audiences in truly.
The only element the movie has going for is the stellar performances of its main cast. Knightley commands the screen from beginning to end and shares great chemistry with an underused Carrie Coon. Cooper, Camp, and Nivola can do no wrong, even if their lines (and characters) are inherently clichéd. They do their best with what they have and make the movie as watchable as possible. Because without their involvement, the film itself would fall flat on its face.
It’s a shame that Boston Strangler is so underwhelming. Despite great performances and a good enough atmosphere, it can’t reach the heights that David Fincher did when he made Zodiac, even if it desperately wants to. Like most movies made nowadays, this is a film that I didn’t mind watching but won’t remember that I ever did after this review is published.
Boston Strangler can now be streamed on Hulu in the United States and on Disney+ internationally.
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