Matt Ruskin’s revisit of the notorious Boston Strangler case is probably too tame for some viewers. But it does entertain with superb acting and a different viewpoint of the events.
Boston Strangler (2023 Film) Synopsis
Between June 1962 and January 1964, 13 women in Greater Boston were brutally attacked and strangled in their homes. Nicknamed the “Boston Strangler” by the press, the case will eventually go down in American history as one of the most notorious serial killer cases ever. Matt Ruskin’s Boston Strangler revisits the events of this horrific case through the eyes of Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole, the two Boston Record American reporters who gave the killer his epithet.
You might have long noticed if you’re fond of serial killer trivia.
The Boston Strangler, i.e., Albert DeSalvo is a regular name on top-10, top-15 listicles about American serial killers. However, whenever there is any sort of ranking involved, DeSalvo is typically “outranked” by more reviled names like Gacy and Bundy.
This is somewhat inexplicable, with the Strangler attributed a double-digit body count and responsible for months of city-wide fear. However, were you to explore the details of the case, a possible reason soon suggests itself.
Uglily put, DeSalvo was caught too easily. Wait a moment, the man wasn’t even “caught.” While in custody for other crimes, DeSalvo confessed to all 13 killings under a legal deal that ensured his admission would not be used in court. Few then completely believed his words but many were also uninclined to challenge his confession. One reason being the killings had by then seemingly stopped.
Worse, DeSalvo was killed in prison a couple of years later, after recanting his confessions. In other words, the case ended on a bizarre, almost anti-climactic dead-end. For writers seeking to thrill and shock, the whole case would have felt lame compared to tales of long police stakeouts and horror apartments with dismembered body parts. Positively boring, even, when alongside the misadventures of a suave necrophiliac defending himself in a trial.
Highlighting the above because I feel it’s important to remember the storytelling challenges of the Boston Strangler case while reviewing Matt Ruskin’s revisit of the events. In summary, this is a grim story with abundant brutality but few twists and climaxes, with a wimp of an ending too. By anchoring the tale on the viewpoints of the women reporters covering and dissecting the events, I think Ruskin successfully gave the show the hook it needs. In the process, he also laid the foundation for some discussion of sexism in American workplaces during the early 1960s.
Admittedly, this hook is often insufficient in disguising the show’s weakest spots—it’s simply too tame and too burdened by memories of serial killer movie classics like Flincher’s Zodiac. (The most gripping segment of Boston Strangler is practically a rehash of the legendary basement scene in Zodiac) But here’s where the superb performances by Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon take over.
The two actresses are absolutely magnetic in their depictions of the leads. Each emphatically demonstrates different strengths too. Knightley’s McLaughlin is dogged and relentless, while Coon’s Cole is pragmatic and restrained.
The interactions of their characters, in turn, create numerous opportunities for emotional twists and developments. Some of these are decently explored, while others, sadly, are sidelined by the need to keep the story compact.
But even with the latter, I think an otherwise limp story was given sufficient life. It might not be enough for some viewers, I suspect, but for me, I did not once feel the movie was boring throughout its two-hour run.
An Academic Examination of the Role of the Press?
Something else in Boston Strangler further appealed to me. Its terse examination of media ethics and the role of the press.
This isn’t a major theme of the story but it is prevalent throughout the show, presented mostly as fiery exchanges between McLaughlin and her colleagues/superiors.
The younger McLaughlin was all out to expose/capture the Strangler, quite determined to shame those that she felt were hindering the investigations too. (I.E., Boston PD) In contrast, the older staff at Record American were reluctant to start a media war, with Coon’s Jean Cole curtly reminding McLaughlin that they cover the news, not create it.
In an epiphanic moment late in the movie, Greg Vrotsos’ George Nassar also stated that McLaughlin was responsible for the unsatisfactory way the case ended with. Her paper created an intense “mythology” around the Boston Strangler. This indirectly contributed to the public embracing Albert DeSalvo’s highly dubious confessions, because everyone was so worn out by the constant grim news.
Now, unless you’re like me, i.e., someone who read communications studies in varsity, you’d probably find these discussions dreary. Truth is, at times, these moments feel over-theatrical too.
But in an age where the fourth estate too often overplays its role, I think such examinations are valuable, if not downright important. They remind us that news is far more complex than the straightforward dissemination of information or the championing of justice. Too often, news can involve repercussions few can predict.
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