The explosion in popularity of true crime has coincided with this “golden era” of television, leading to a plethora of programs on murderers. The most famous serial killers in history have been explored from just about every angle, even coming-of-age stories (!!!), to the point of peak saturation. But these projects continue to attract A-list talent, and that’s certainly the case for Hulu’s new thriller, Boston Strangler, which is led by the duo of Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon. But for all of the film’s star power, this look at one of the most infamous murderers ever is too cold and aloof for its own good.
The Boston Strangler was a case that captivated the country in the 1960s, and for good reason. The notorious killer murdered as many as 15 women throughout Boston, usually targeting those who were elderly or lived alone. A panic spread throughout the city, but police were slow to investigate until forced into it by a pair of intrepid female reporters from the Boston Record American, who broke the story and began connecting the killings.
Writer/director Matt Ruskin focuses on the sexism faced by those reporters, married mother of three Loretta McLaughlin (Knightley) and the more-experienced journalist Jean Cole (Coon). A little bit rough around the edges and unafraid to speak her mind, Jean is pretty much the only woman at the paper who is allowed to cover the hard news stories, while Loretta and the others are relegated to lifestyle pieces and product reviews. But Loretta’s persistence and dogged investigating pays off, and her boss (Chris Cooper) puts her on the Boston Strangler beat, working alongside Jean.
Ruskin has clearly taken some of his cues from David Fincher’s Zodiac, while never quite nailing the visceral tension of that far-better film. But he has the washed-out color scheme, the attention to Loretta’s troubled marriage as work takes over her life, bordering on obsession. Unfortunately, this all feels like small potatoes, like a poor replica of stuff we’ve seen done before whether by Fincher or even Spike Lee with Summer of Sam. It’s unfair to compare Ruskin, who previously directed 2017’s accomplished prison drama Crown Heights, with directors such as Fincher and Lee. He doesn’t have their experience or their resources. But he could have done more with what he does have, because Boston Strangler does have an incredible cast.
However, the roles given to Knightley, Coon, and others including Cooper, Alessandro Nivola as a detective on the case, and Bill Camp as the city Commissioner, are very subdued. The individual performances are good, but unremarkable. Even the blatant bias directed at Loretta and Jean feels very by-the-book. Everyone is just so understated that they fail to make much of an impression. The same goes for depictions of the murders, which are technically efficient but lacking in thrills like a reenactment from America’s Most Wanted or some other true crime series.
As a Hulu exclusive available now, Boston Strangler at least fits neatly into their Women’s History Month programming. Even with the focus turned to the trailblazing women who helped bring the killer down, the film fails to do anything new with the crime procedural formula, and is too beholden to thrillers from the past.