In the summer of 1962, Boston newspapers started printing stories about a series of seemingly connected murders in the city. The victims were found strangled to death in their apartments. After trying out a few other monikers for the killer, the local media settled on the direct and menacing Boston Strangler. It took firm hold, and a major, infamous figure in the problematic genre of true crime storytelling was in place.
To say that Boston Strangler, the new docudrama from writer-director Matt Ruskin, is stylistically indebted to David Fincher’s Zodiac is like positing the Monkees owe a little something to the Beatles. The statement is technically accurate and yet laughable in its monumental understatement. Like Fincher and Zodiac screenwriter, James Vanderbilt, Ruskin uses the journalists covering the serial killer as entryway to the mystery at play. In the case of Boston Strangler, it’s two women who work for the Boston Record American: Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) and Jean Cole (Carrie Coon). Ruskin attempts to bath his film in mood in much the same way Fincher did, but the result is a series so gloomily lit that every indoor space seems to have five or six light bulbs out.
Initially the only ones pursuing a story that most other locals dismissed as nothing more than random crimes, Loretta and Jean become so identified with the coverage that they briefly achieve a level of local celebrity for their efforts. That notoriety of the intrepid reporters in one of several interesting themes that the Ruskin introduces and then doesn’t quite know how to transform them into something meaty and meaningful. Similarly, the chauvinism Loretta and Jean endure could have some weightier meaning, especially as a central reason they saw a pattern in the violence against women before anyone else. Instead, the indignities are little more than color in the script.
In almost every respect, Boston Strangler is flat cinema. It’s mechanical and bland, leaving some good actors helplessly stuck. Coon’s inherent craftiness as a performer is almost entirely shunted aside, and Chris Cooper is about as generic as can be in the role of the newspaper’s irascible editor. Knightly does a little better, but that can seemingly be attributed to her greater percentage of screen time as much as anything else. She scrapes together just enough fleeting moments of nuance to at least give the impression of a full performance. As achievements go, that’s pretty light. In a film like Boston Strangler, though, you take what you can get.