Boston Strangler (2023)

In the early 1960s, the American public (as well as the rest of the world) was captivated by the existence of the serial killer known as The Boston Strangler, an individual who spent the years between 1962 and 1964 on a trail of murder, his victims being over a dozen single women that he targeted through what authorities believe was a combination of trust and deception, working his way into their homes by pretending to be a handyman or delivery person tasked, murdering them in their own apartments while leaving calling-cards in the form of meticulously-tied bows around their necks. It is difficult to speak about any kind of certainty in regards to this killer, since despite having a few clear candidates for the position of the Boston Strangler, all but one of the murders have remained open for over half a century, with very little possibility of them being closed, since there are so many ambiguities related to the murders. However, this hasn’t prevented the case from being one of the most famous in the storied history of American crime, with numerous attempts to adapt this story to page and screen being conducted over the years. The most recent effort comes on the part of Matt Ruskin, who directs the appropriately-titled Boston Strangler (a title it shares with the 1968 film, which was made in the direct aftermath of the murders, and while the investigations were still ongoing), which explores a different perspective of the murders. The film, which is about as conventional as a true crime story can get, is a well-constructed and captivating drama about an investigation, which is composed of both grand revelations and the discovery of small details that accumulate to create something much more meaningful. Ruskin, who has been working under the radar for a few years producing and directing a few well-received films that have gone mostly unnoticed. However, he proves himself to be potentially a tremendous journeyman director, as made very evident by this fascinating and compelling psychological thriller.

The premise at the heart of Boston Strangler is neither new nor revolutionary in any way, and this exact story has been told countless times before, whether in direct retellings of the events, or fictionalized versions of the story that often use elements of this premise to terrify viewers – the concept of being killed in your own home by an invader is a fear most people have, so the idea of the Boston Strangler killing people after they willingly let him in under false pretences is quite a chilling concept. However, this film does make a few changes to how the story has been told previously in terms of the perspective. Most versions focus on the police and detectives tasked with investigating the case, and as anyone who knows the history of these murders will remember, the Boston Police Department notoriously fumbled the case in its early stages, refusing to acknowledge the possibility that the first half-dozen murders could have been committed by the same individual, rather than being the work of a range of different killers. The focus of this film is not on the authorities, but rather on the journalists responsible for drawing these correlations, namely Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole, who worked laboriously for years, often putting themselves in the path of danger, for the sake of finding answers to these questions. The film inarguably does include a notable amount of feminist discourse, especially since these were journalists who struggled to be taken seriously, since they were viewed as only appropriate for lifestyle and domestic stories, rather than those that related to more important, pressing socio-cultural issues. It is not overwrought with this commentary, but it is evident from the start that this is something that will factor into the narrative in one way or another, which becomes the foundation for many of the film’s more fascinating and insightful human moments, which are often missing from more traditional stories around criminal investigations.

Boston Strangler is a very traditional crime film, which is something that is increasingly difficult to find nowadays, despite the modern fascination with true crime stories. It almost feels like this film is situated in the past, both in terms of the story and the directorial approach. We essentially have a film that runs under two hours in length, and tells its story by presenting the facts explicitly and directly. In an era where this story would more commonly be stretched across a six-hour limited series (and it certainly is a case that warrants a lot of detail), to find something so self-contained and straightforward is absolutely refreshing and adds nuance onto an already well-constructed film. Boston Strangler gets to the point and wastes very little time delivering the facts in a straightforward and unfurnished manner, which is especially important considering this is not a film that has the answers all lined up, nor does it propose any solution beyond what we already know. Instead, it is tasked with reconfiguring this knowledge into a different perspective, focusing not on the detectives that led the case, but rather the journalists that spent years of their lives investigating this story, often working closely with the authorities (who were originally quite reluctant to allow any kind of sway from the press, especially from two women who they viewed as being out of their depth with the story, until they finally found the connections that helped push the case forward), and putting their own lives at risk purely for the sake of seeking out justice for these women who were victims of what appeared to be a malicious male serial killer using his own deviant sexual perversions as the basis for a string of murders. There is a lot of exciting detail contained beneath the surface, and if we can get past the very traditional exterior, the viewer will find a wealth of fascinating commentary embedded deep within the film.

One of the aspects that help elevate Boston Strangler, making it much more than a run-of-the-mill crime drama, are the performances that are nestled right at the heart of the story. Keira Knightley is truly one of our great actors, but she has unfortunately been shoehorned into playing characters that don’t always match her immense talents, and has often been cited as being limited to only period pieces. It is true that she has mostly flourished in films set in the past, but this is primarily because there is a timelessness about her, and she is able to adapt into any era, turning in convincing performances every time she steps on screen, regardless of the period in which the film is taking place. This film doesn’t do much to dissuade from the narrative that she is only effective in historical films, since everything about Boston Strangler revolves around capturing a specific moment in the past, which is the foundation on which the entire film is built. Knightley turns in an exceptionally strong performance – it may not be one that requires her to do an abundance of acting, but rather capture the details underpinning this character as a whole. The same can be said for Carrie Coon (another one of the finest actors working today), who may be tragically underused, but makes the best of every moment she is on screen, delivering a standout performance that feels rich, evocative and meaningful. Neither McLaughlin nor Cole are particularly interesting characters on a narrative level – they were extremely competent journalists who wrote well and got the answers they sought, so there wasn’t any sense of conflict in terms of their characterization, since they’re essentially women that do their jobs extremely well, and who the film treats as nothing but professionals. However, it’s in the smaller nuances that we find value in these characters, who are such rich and complex individuals, brought to life by a pair of extremely talented actors.

The entire method of telling the story at the heart of Boston Strangler is to make a very traditional crime film that hits all the required notes, offering us the facts and then leaving us with the information that will hopefully inspire us to look deeper into the case, since it would be impossible for any film to capture all the details and nuances of such a story. It may not be the most exciting approach in theory, and Ruskin doesn’t seem to be interested in convincing us that this is by any means a revolutionary film, or one seeking to change how we perceive or consume these stories. Instead, he takes this true story and turns it into a very conventional potboiler of a film, showing the teams assigned to investigate these murders over a few years, both the police and the journalists that stood on the sidelines, but played a pivotal role in not only drawing the public’s attention to this crisis, but also helping find connections and details that were neglected or overlooked by the authorities. It is a very conventional film, but it does prove the virtue of following traditions – there was very little reason for this story to be subjected to an elaborate, experimental approach, especially since it was essentially retreading knowledge we all possessed, just from a very different perspective. It didn’t offer too many solutions, outside of updating the knowledge presented in previous films that focus on this subject matter, and the intricate human emotions and pathos embedded deep within this film is worth the price of admission all on its own. Well-made, thrilling and compelling from beginning to end, Boston Strangler reminds us that, when a story is told well, there is very little need for extravagance, since the narrative on its own captures our attention and keeps us engaged and enthralled from beginning to end.


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