Bleak atmosphere and a David Fincher-inspired aesthetic are the first things that audiences will notice when watching “Boston Strangler.” Writer-director Matt Ruskin pulls us into this true-crime tale, centered on the dedicated reporters determined to solve Boston’s serial killings in the early 1960s, using similarly desaturated color, frame composition and camera movements. A distant cousin to “Zodiac,” with splashes of “Seven” mixed into its homages, this thriller falls short of its influences yet carves out a small space of its own. It makes a searing indictment of the sloppy, sexism-laced police work that might’ve resolved the case, and pays tribute to the two women who broke the investigation wide open.
Happily married mom of three Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) is a lifestyle reporter at the Record American, a newspaper continually scooped by its competitors. Hoping to break out of the staff role she’s relegated to and into the homicide beat, she comes across a link between the murders of a few elderly women and the killer’s gruesome signature of a stocking garrote tied around the violated victims’ necks. Her editor Jack (Chris Cooper) is reluctant to let her investigate, striking a deal that she can take the assignment on spec. But after her first front-page story draws the ire of Boston Police Commissioner McNamara (Bill Camp), Jack assigns Loretta a seasoned partner: Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), whose connections and quick-witted know-how will garner better results.
As Loretta learns the tricks of the trade from Jean and picks up politicking with the police by befriending Detective Conley (Alessandro Nivola), she also sees the pitfalls manifest in her home life. The death toll continues to rise, persons of interest (played by David Dastmalchian and Ryan Winkles) slip through their hands and the cops’ glaring mistakes begin to surface. Meanwhile, the stressful, time-consuming legwork causes marital strife with her long-suffering husband James (Morgan Spector), who’s supportive of her career until he’s conveniently not. She’s also fending off harassment from creepy heavy-breathers calling her home and menacing strangers delivering threatening letters at night. But once she sees the cutouts of her articles next to her slumbering daughter’s bed, she’s reminded of the reasons why she’s vigilant, and regains her shaken confidence.
Ruskin demonstrates strong visual dexterity, placing his protagonists strategically within the frame as a way to track their mindsets and motivations. This technique is particularly noteworthy in the two individual chats Loretta has with a victim’s mother: At first, their images project confidence and control in the center of the frame, but later, when the case turns murkier, their faces are obscured by one another in their reverse shots. Ruskin’s collaboration with editor Anne McCabe also nails the tangible look and feel of a Fincher film, especially in the montages and murder sequences — cutting away at the precise moment before the explicit horror strikes, employing the psychological thriller tenet that what’s heard and not seen has a greater chilling effect.
From the soft, steely sterility of the newsroom’s washed-out mint green and gray palette to the muted warmth of the sepia tones in Loretta’s home, the marriage of Ben Kutchins’ cinematography and John P. Goldsmith’s production design is exemplary in connoting emotion through environments. Boston’s brick row houses with their towering lines appear like an impenetrable force Loretta’s trying to break through during her first act as a roving reporter. Paul Leonard-Morgan’s score is haunting and foreboding, making the hairs on the back of our neck prickle.
Though the picture’s technical craftsmanship is strong, its narrative is noticeably weaker. Loretta and Jean’s relationship starts as a fascinating, genre-fortified “rookie and seasoned cop” pairing, though that dramatically lessens in the course of the film — due not to Loretta maturing, but to sheer forgetfulness on the filmmakers’ part about spotlighting them now as equals. Ruskin’s screenplay underplays Coon’s innate talents by failing to give Jean a multidimensional internality, despite her performance elevating her material. Knightley displays nuances that allow us to chart Loretta’s psyche (she’s initially shocked by crime scene photographs, and later is forced to compartmentalize the horror), although to a lessened effect. Overall the film suffers from a similar problem as “She Said,” its sincerity occasionally coming across as shameless pandering.
The movie’s final breaths strike an unintentional down note rather than an uplifting, empowering one as seemingly intended: Loretta, having learned from Jean’s advice to accept an imperfect work-life balance, debates walking into her home, where her husband is waiting, and instead heads to a local bar to join Jean. It’s a subtle callback to an earlier scene between the pair when they first bonded over drinks and familiar frustrations. However, the dour sentiment it sends — later confirmed by end-title cards announcing Loretta’s future career successes and marital failure — feels like “Ladies, you can’t have it all.” And that deflating message could strangle the dreams of many women everywhere.
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