The Boston Strangler (2023) — Movie Review
The Boston Strangler is an investigative mystery thriller starring Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon, and was inspired by the true story of the periodical series covering the murders from the Boston Record American. While the film draws obvious parallels to Zodiac, Spotlight, or Amazon’s The Report, The Boston Strangler does not quite reach the meteoric heights of some of the best of these, though it still manages to sit nicely as an entertaining experience, especially for those who are not aware of the history of the case.
The first half of The Boston Strangler introduces our cast of characters, as well as the context, rather nicely. Keira Knightley plays Loretta McLaughlin, sporting an impressive American accent, and also finds herself balancing being the mother of three children with her work at the Lifestyle desk of the Boston Record American, with some dissatisfaction for not being given what she views as far more serious assignments. After a series of murders within a short period turn out to be linked, Loretta is given the chance to write an article, one which explodes in popularity. After more victims turn up, Loretta is joined by Jean Cole, a veteran of the American with contacts in the Boston Police Department. Together, the two cover the case, but with stressors impacting their family and their relationships with both the public and with the police department.
The film is shot in the tradition of recent independent films and streaming television, which is to say that it is literally dark and underexposed, with a heavy use of depth of field. As the story goes along, several shots, like intense close ups of clocks, or strangely downcast shots of a cobbled street, or a close up of a notepad, do little to speak to the overall structure of the film, which is attempting a very pared down and no nonsense tone, similar to other films in this genre. While Knightley and Coon manage to impressively provide great power and tension to the film as they work together, many of the shots and cinematography do not carry with it the same power and influence. The unraveling of the story in the second act, before the separate plotlines wrap themselves up, is plagued simultaneously with confusion on the viewer’s part, as several suspects are opened up as possibilities, but without enough follow through to place them in any sort of category. That being said, the first half of the film works best with a narrative which begins in medias res, and by the time the viewer comes back to the present day, we have totally forgotten the event, and respond with excitement, which I think is a benefit. Many details are foreshadowed and called back to later in the film, of what suspects say and what they do, to good effect. But what keeps the finale from landing quite right might be because of pacing, as well as the dire problem of having to coalesce the entire case too quickly. For a film that presents a great structure that it cannot contain, a 3 out of 5 works here.
Intensity of Effect
I personally am a sucker for investigative films, as there is something so invigorating about pouring over documents in manila folders, spilling coffee from Styrofoam cups on ties, and the marital problems that ensue from going too far down the rabbit hole. I think The Boston Strangler attempts this, but is unwilling to dress Knightley and Coon down enough to the bare bone. Both of these actresses are immaculately pretty, and there is never an occasion where for once it feels like they have lost sleep or their curls have come loose. That being said, there is a kernal in the film which works very well in my eyes, and that is the relationship between the two. Coon’s character Jean is obviously a veteran, and so her contacts and prowess at the paper intimidate Loretta at first. Their tense back and forths are respectful, yet occasionally stern. Each character is proven right and wrong on multiple fronts, and it is their professionalism and desire to write the story which wins out over petty rivalry or cutthroat competition. Their performances thread this needle perfectly in my opinion, which does justice to the real friendship between the two in their years with the paper.
Much of the violence in the murders is implied with clever sound design off-camera, though there are some very quick shots of intention that reveal the manner of the assault. The city of Boston is shot cold and dark, almost like a Batman film, and the use of cool colors like dark greens and blues do quite a lot for emphasizing the sense of fear experienced by the city in the 1960s. But most of the effect of the film comes not from the look, but rather the content of the case itself, which takes several twists and turns that are believable (given what we know about police investigation in our true crime obsession) and yet no less shocking. Unfortunately, the film has a difficult time capitalizing on it. Many of the press conferences especially feel cheap and cliche. The film moves so quickly that getting statements from citizens or police can feel a little too easy. And some resolving lines from suspects, ones which are more abstract and attempt to make some far-reaching implications beyond the film, fall completely flat. This is not something that exists solely at the end: many of the early lines from characters, so as to jump start the rising action, feel flimsy as well, with lines like “cut to the chase” and “you dont get it” coming out so quickly that you get the sense that the director is embarrassed over these scenes and wants to move on. While the tone manages to stay consistent, the attempts to keep that tone fluctuate between flimsy material and sturdy performances. A 3 out of 5 works best.
The Boston Strangler has to maneuver between several different precincts, the lives of two adult women and their families, not to mention the inner politics of both the Boston American and the police department. Many of the particular scenes that address the stressors advancing our Knightley’s Loretta play out as we might imagine them, with a husband behaving democratically at first, only to be pushed further and further into exasperation. The twists in the case are revelatory, but many of the ways the details are presented feel as though they were taken at liberty, so as to add some tension to the middle of the film that likely was not there at all. There are several scenes where Loretta reaches out to her Boston Police contact on the inside, Jim, and they have several short scenes in a bar that could just have likely been done over the phone. One egregious example has Loretta asking this contact a detail about an inmate’s incarceration time, something that could have been checked beforehand, and is in fact checked afterward. For as many details as the film claims to have, by the end the viewer can pick out a handful of scenes that feel contrived and unnecessary. Unfortunately then several plot points tend not to land at the end for lacking the right investment in them. Complexity is instead exchanged for convolution. That being said, there are foreshadowed details for those who pay attention. A 2 out of 5 for complexity.
One wonders when the obsession with crime, crime dramas, true crime, and murder mysteries, will draw to a close. The Boston Strangler certainly fits snuggly into these categories. Each moment has been done in previous films, from the scene where they have to systematically call every “Sullivan” in the phone book, to the scene where Loretta visits a suspect’s house alone and is told to follow them into a back room. Every beat has been beaten to death. The best place for originality in The Boston Strangler lies, again, with Jean and Loretta’s relationship in the 1960s in a male-dominated world. This was handled surprisingly rarely in a show like Mad Men, where the women of the office would intersect occasionally but hardly walk in parallel for very long. Knightley and Coon manage to keep the film confident in itself despite these shortcomings, and it is a rare performance in Hollywood even today.
Possibly its weakest element is the way it is shot, which just reeks of this modern style of underlit locations and heavy depth of field. So much of the scene in any frame is effectively imperturbable, whether it’s due to one or the other as a choice. This is a shame, because I felt many of the period details to be sufficiently well done. The costuming, and the settings feel very natural and lived-in, with possibly an exception being the costumes of our leads, which rest on their shoulders like the models they are. But the narrow range of contrast robs the period detail in my eyes. The trend chasing of a certain look, particularly the perceived look of a kind of film such as this, does real damage to the work of creating Boston in the 1960s. A 2 out of 5 for originality.
A 2.5 out of 5.0 highlights a film that will not linger in the mind of a viewer for very long, but for what it sets out to do, The Boston Strangler is serviceable and acceptable. It has some good elements that were not leveraged to become great, due to the film being too muddled by trend chasing and poor development. We have confident performances from our two leads, even if the material they’ve been given at the periphery fails to inspire. Still, I think for any true crime ladies out there, The Boston Strangler is inspirational, due to its simultaneous ability to be grounded, both in period detail and in acting. Get a group to watch it with, and then move on to the next one.