Director: Matt Ruskin | 1h 52mins | Drama, Crime, Biography
In 1960’s Boston, Journalist Loretta McLaughlin is the first to spot a connection between a string of murders leading to the investigation of the infamous ‘Boston Strangler’.
The niche subgenre of journalistic investigation is spearheaded by Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men and, more recently, Tom McCarthey’s spectacular Spotlight. Both films are a testament to this specific type of film, balancing the genre tropes of mystery and giving us real stories told with panache and honesty. Matt Ruskin’s newest film does bear a resemblance to both of those films both in style and narrative, but its unbalanced script and half-hearted tackle of misogyny leave it paling in comparison.
Keira Knightley stars as Loretta McLaughlin, a journalist working for ‘Record American’, tied to the lifestyle desk desperately trying to break out of the mundanity and write about something real. When she spots a connection between three homicides, she writes a piece and becomes the first person to name the murderer as ‘The Boston Strangler’. These early scenes set up promise, tackling the sexism of 1960’s workplaces as well as the outmoded roles expected of women of the time. Unfortunately, somewhere amongst the multiple suspects, anti-police narrative and heavy character focus the film completely loses this important thread. While Loretta McLaughlin remains an important figure for feminism and journalism, the film’s muddled approach at telling her story doesn’t do her justice.
At some point in the narrative the film loses you. You could argue that this is a true-to-life reflection of the Police’s skewed and scattered investigation but what Ruskin, who also wrote the screenplay, can’t seem to find is any coherence between the multiple threads he’s pulling on. Loretta’s home life taking a hit, the botched investigation and the collision between press and police all seem to get shuffled about with no real substance, lacking the extra punch that films of this genre regularly have. Fincher’s Zodiac is the prime example, with no clear conviction in its true story, it balances coherence with an enigmatic quality with ease – but Boston Strangler struggles to find that balance all the way through.
The film boasts an impressive cast – with Carrie Coon, Chris Cooper and David Dastmalchian adding a little roughness to their characters – all playing their parts well while feeling slightly underused. But, Keira Knightley’s central performance as Loretta feels misplaced. Unable to capture the jagged persona of a character in the heart of a grim Boston setting, she can’t quite keep up with the performances around her. There is an argument that the two dimensional way in which we are shown Loretta only hinders Knightley’s ability to really capture the character, but as a singular performance it feels more like an imitation more so than an honest interpretation.
While the film’s narrative may be challenging, it’s able to capture the time and setting well, showing us the bleakness of a city shaken by murders. The dreary colour palette and smoky rooms really plays a part in creating the film’s tone – adding the enigmatic qualities that the film so desperately needs. However, it’s less of a crowning achievement and more of a fleeting triumph for a film that is so underwhelming.
A story of such infamy is always going to be interesting, but in the right hands this could have joined the elite groups of films that stand as the best of the genre. Aside from some strong supporting performances by great character actors and a consistent tone, Boston Strangler stumbles at every narrative hurdle – unable to capture anything poignant despite challenging so many themes.