In writer-director Matt Ruskin’s preachy, derivative, largely uninvolving movie Boston Strangler about the real 1960s serial killer of the same moniker, it is not enough for a journalist to overcome the obvious obstacles of helping illuminate a series of heinous crimes. No, since we live in 2023, she must also bear the burdens of her time and gender. She is asked to vanquish not just the Boston Strangler but sexism in the office, gender roles at home, and mansplaining everywhere else.
You would think that if you were making a movie about a famous killer and the journalist who identified the connection between his victims, gave him a name, and pursued every angle of the case, you’d have enough material to go with. Doing all that is certainly a big deal in the career of any journalist, and Loretta McLaughlin of the Boston Record American (played, in the film, by Keira Knightley) made her mark on the world when she demonstrated links between a series of apparently random murders of women in 1960s-era Boston. Yet in the present moment, it’s identity-based oppression, not murder by strangulation, that really grabs Hollywood producers’ attention. Yes, the anti-intellectual and artistically flattening tendency that we are not supposed to be able to identify crisply enough to name “wokeness” has finally come for the true-crime drama.
Let us take a moment to mourn the loss. Sixteen years ago, David Fincher’s Zodiac, about a different serial killer operating on a different coast, became the ne plus ultra of the genre by vividly dramatizing the incremental problem-solving undertaken by a newspaper reporter and cartoonist (Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal) as they attempted to unpack the crimes. Sure, our heroes have their personal problems, but Fincher never let the focus stray too far from the task at hand; who the Zodiac is matters more than, say, Gyllenhaal’s relationship with his son.
In the far weaker Boston Strangler, however, McLaughlin is shown to be hobbled at every turn by her society, her culture, the glass ceiling, and so on. Her boss at the newspaper (Chris Cooper, who, in early scenes, has something of the over-the-top misogynistic manner he had as FBI agent Robert Hanssen in Breach) seeks to keep her in the lifestyle section and only reluctantly agrees to let her pursue the murders. Her husband (Morgan Spector) seems either blase or explicitly unsupportive, and assorted law-enforcement officials only occasionally treat her with respect.
Perhaps McLaughlin encountered such doubters and haters in real life, perhaps not. Either way, the movie is one long case of cinematic amnesia. McLaughlin is portrayed as just about the first female journalist ever to crack a case, but audiences who remember Bette Davis in Front Page Woman (1935), Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940), the Torchy Blane B-movie series, or Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year (1942) know better. At least in the movies — and probably, more often than not, in real life, too — hard-charging women have always been welcome in hard-bitten newsrooms.
But as played by Knightley, a tightly wound brunette whose defensive manner suggests Debra Winger at her worst, McLaughlin isn’t so much an inheritor of this tradition as a sad deviation from it. Her McLaughlin is either angry or aggrieved, not qualities one associates with the likes of Davis, Russell, or Hepburn. While still on the lifestyle beat, she pouts when she is asked to write about a toaster. Surely a tough cookie like Roz would have heaved the appliance at her editor. After garnering deserved attention for her Boston Strangler stories, she is insulted, or feels exploited, or something, when her newspaper wishes to run her photo alongside her byline. Undoubtedly, a savvier, cannier reporter would have recognized this for the publicity coup that it is. Think book deal, Loretta! (When I had a weekly column in a major metro daily newspaper, my photo ran atop it. It was a compliment!) And later in the film, McLaughlin becomes indignant when her husband informs her that he’s accepted a new position that will require him to commute a few days a week — more indignant than she is during many points of the murder investigation itself.
What we have in Boston Strangler, then, is a strange hybrid: the story of a serial killer commingled with the story of a woman coming into her own. Are we to interpret the murderer’s crimes as being one species of the victimization of women and workplace sexism as another? If so, that’s an outrageous insult to the women, past and present, who have reported honestly and relentlessly on crime topics, including McLaughlin herself. In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, the author remembered a youthful stint at the Chicago City News Bureau, where, he wrote, “the very toughest reporters and writers were women who had taken over the jobs of men who’d gone to war.” Well, let us hope that the real-life McLaughlin — who was amply honored in her day, including winning a post as editorial page editor at the Boston Globe — was closer to the authentically tough women Vonnegut knew than the self-righteous, self-involved version played by Knightley.
Setting aside the embedded cultural commentary on identity topics, does Boston Strangler work as a true-crime movie? The film comes across as a lame Xerox of far better movies. A scene showing McLaughlin and her Boston Record American colleague Jean Cole (Carrie Coon, who at least has some sass and spunk) poring over phone books in search of a relative of a victim is straight out of All the President’s Men. A scene depicting McLaughlin visiting her mother in an apartment weirdly recalls the priest visiting his mother in The Exorcist. Of course, too many moments to mention are cribbed from Zodiac, including McLaughlin receiving ominous phone calls by heavy breathers and, later, munching on snacks in a car.
Perhaps because it spends so much time imitating its betters, the film forgets to generate sufficient interest in the question of the actual identity of the Boston Strangler. On top of everything else, the cinematography is deathly drab to look at: dark, dank, and rainy. Gloomy is not the same thing as scary.
The crimes of the Boston Strangler, or whichever person or persons committed those crimes some 60 years ago, are more than grisly and startling enough to sustain a perversely captivating movie. Besides, any journalist worth her salt would know that one of the first rules for journalists is “never make yourself the story.”
Peter Tonguette is a contributing writer to the Washington Examiner magazine.