A boogeyman from a time that predates 24-hour news cycles, podcasts, and true crime docuseries, the Boston Strangler represents something of an unsolvable problem for filmmakers. Terrorizing the city of Boston from 1962 until early 1964, the Strangler was a prowler who sexually assaulted and murdered thirteen women, asphyxiating them with their own garments after talking his way into their homes by pretending to be a handyman. The salacious details, as well as the fact that the victims invited their killer inside, cast a pall over a city already prone to distrust and provincialism until the murders stopped with the arrest of career criminal Albert DeSalvo. But DeSalvo was and remains an unsatisfying conclusion to the story: a mentally ill sex offender already in police custody at the time he was fingered as the Stangler — for what was, at the time, deemed an unrelated assault charge — DeSalvo confessed to all thirteen murders but, controversially, never faced prosecution for them and subsequently recanted his confession. That, along with his poor recollection of crime scene details, has led to various theories over the years that he may not have been responsible for all of the murders (only exacerbated by his own jailhouse murder in 1973 by an associate of the Winter Hill Gang). Filmmaker Matt Ruskin’s new film, Boston Strangler, shares that skepticism and uses the film as a means of questioning the official story. But it’s stymied by the facts of the case, which lack any obvious heroes or especially compelling advancements in the investigation. Here, as in real life, the absence of any sort of forward momentum creates a vacuum which is only filled by wild speculation.
Perhaps recognizing that the Strangler case didn’t cover law enforcement in glory, the film presents the story from the perspective of real-life Record American reporter Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley), an ambitious journalist whose talents are wasted reviewing toasters for puff pieces meant for housewives. Loretta longs for the kind of impactful assignments that her colleague, the no-nonsense Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), takes on. However, after identifying what she believes to be a pattern in a series of purportedly random murders reported on by her own newspaper, Loretta wills herself into the middle of the story. Corroborating crime scene details during her off hours, Loretta deduces that all the women were killed by the same assailant, a conclusion the Boston police department was either unaware of or desperate to keep a lid on. Having blown the story wide open, Loretta earns the begrudging respect of her editor, Jack MacLaine (Chris Cooper, in the long tradition of stern yet supportive newspapermen), as well as the ire of the police department, who push back hard against her reporting. Facing increasing scrutiny, Jack keeps Loretta on the story on the condition she partners with the more seasoned Jean, even playing up the crusading “lady journalists” angle to sell more newspapers. But as the bodies continue to pile up, the police remain at a loss and Loretta’s dogged reporting puts a strain on her marriage and a target on her back.
Ruskin cribs liberally from David Fincher’s Zodiac, another true crime opus that denies the viewer pat answers or any sense of comfort, but the connections are all superficial. The gloomy, desaturated photography, the conflicting evidence causing whiplash as one suspect falls away while another steps to the fore, the marital discord, the menacing anonymous phone calls, and so on. At one point, Loretta pays a visit to the home of a source, and it plays, almost beat for beat, like the scene from Zodiac where Robert Graysmith visits the home of Bob Vaughn, only here sapped of all tension (the film attempts to compensate for this by randomly populating the location with abundant mannequins). What’s really missing here is any kind of unique perspective on the personal toll that this case takes on Loretta — Knightley is strictly a cipher here, forced to go through the motions of rote kitchen table arguments with her long-suffering yet somehow not supportive enough husband — or anything beyond the most glancing of blows against the organizational failings of the police.
Boston Strangler also has little feel for the era or setting; it was filmed in and around Boston, but aside from a couple of aerial shots, you’d be hard pressed to tell. It’s probably for the best that the entire cast foregoes even attempting the non-rhotic accent (Boston-born Alessandro Nivola as Conley, a sympathetic homicide detective, is the notable exception, making a meal out of words like “department”), but it only adds to the suspicion that the film’s interest in the city, its victims, and the scared citizenry is cursory at best. Instead, Boston Strangler is primarily a critique of patriarchal institutions which conspire to intimidate, discredit, and demoralize Loretta and Jean, strictly on the basis of their gender. One can imagine an alternate universe where She Said had any sort of cultural impact, whetting the audience’s appetite for other examples of intrepid female journalists bravely bringing sex pests to justice. Instead, this simply feels late to an already under-attended party.
But then there are those niggling doubts and inconsistencies about the case. Just when it appears as though the film is surely wrapping itself up, with DeSalvo safely tucked away in a maximum security facility, it simply keeps going, spinning out at the eleventh hour to consider a string of murders halfway across the country and the dim possibility that DeSalvo was in fact only one of several killers. Ruskin expends so much energy setting the table and presenting with a straight face scenes like the one where Loretta has to tell Conley that DeSalvo didn’t actually have an alibi because he was released from prison early — did he, the lead detective on the case, not think to check on this himself? — that its multiple-killer theory, the ostensible reason the film even exists, ends up coming across like a hasty afterthought. Rather than carefully leading the viewer down the path of an alternate scenario that flies in the face of widely held beliefs, Boston Strangler seems to be surprised by its own conclusions, left scrambling to incorporate all the extraneous parts as if it were Ikea furniture with half a dozen leftover pieces sitting on the carpet. If the film wanted to do the “this book presupposes that Custer didn’t die at Little Bighorn” thing, perhaps it shouldn’t have buried it in an appendix.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 11.