In 1962, Loretta McLaughlin, a reporter at the Boston Record-American, noticed a small item buried on page five of a local paper. It detailed the murder of a woman who had been found strangled in her apartment. Something about this seems familiar to McLaughlin, who digs through some old clippings and finds a story about a widow who’d also been strangled in a different neighborhood. The details of the crimes are oddly similar. She’s been itching to get away from the lifestyle desk and get her hands on a good, meaty story; this seems a lot more intriguing than reviewing a new toaster model.
So McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) digs some more, makes some visits to police precincts and cop bars, asks a lot of questions. The brass at the newspaper think she’s a little green for this kind of investigation — not to mention she’s a lady! — so they assign her Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), a slightly more seasoned journalist who’s been working undercover to bust a nursing-home scam, as her partner. The idea of two female reporters chasing down leads about a homicidal maniac seems like a nice publicity stunt to them; maybe it’ll sell a few more papers. But McLaughlin and Cole’s combined efforts to catch this murderer, who the former dubs “the Boston Strangler,” will eventually result in the arrest of Albert DeSalvo and the outing of one of the most notorious serial killers of the 1960s.
Or maybe not, according to Boston Strangler, the Hulu movie that revisits the case — and more to the point, the work of these two reporters to identify and capture the culprit — in the name of 21st century true crime entertainment. On one-hand, it’s a typical shoe-leather thriller, in which the less glamorous, more drudging aspects of the fourth estate are lionized (think there’s nothing “sexy” about poring through autopsy findings and institutional paperwork? Think again!), and the people who doggedly work a story into the wee hours are treated like great American heroes.
Which McLaughlin and Cole certainly were, as well as being working mothers and wives juggling the expectations foisted upon them in the era’s professional and personal arenas. You can see why Knightley and Coon would be drawn to playing these characters, because both of them are superhumanly dedicated to their jobs and neither of them are saints; McLaughlin keeps catching hell from her husband (Morgan Spector) about working long hours, and Cole’s home life is, per her own admission, a white-hot mess. While the killer on the loose in Massachusetts may primarily target elderly women, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a bullseye painted on these female journalists as well. The real boogeyman here is the particularly virulent strain of sexism that pervaded all aspects of life in the early to mid-1960s, and like the recent She Said, the XX-chromosome element adds an extra layer of drama and danger to every plot turn. Woodward and Bernstein were never forced to negotiate minefields of harassment in the office. This dynamic duo dealt with dark alleys and glass ceilings.
And on the other hand, Boston Strangler is very much capitalizing on the ongoing fascination with the lurid, depraved and tabloid-friendly fodder of yesteryear, which is where the “or maybe not” aspect comes in. There’s a cryptic prologue that takes places in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and when DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian) is finally apprehended, we return to the scene of that too-copycat-for-comfort crime. There may have been several stranglers operating in various regions, all with the same M.O., and all of whom can be traced back to the same psych ward. DeSalvo was still involved; a DNA test in 2013 definitively tied him to the murder of Mary Sullivan. Yet the movie keeps toying with the notion that those 13 homicides weren’t the work of one man but many, and emphasizing how McLaughlin and Cole’s insistence that this wasn’t an open-and-shut case possibly resulted in a partial miscarriage of justice.
It’s an intriguing “what if” addendum to this, one worth pursuing in depth. The “how” of the movie’s presentation of all of this is more of an issue here. Question for cinematographers: Is there a specific filter that’s simply titled “David Fincher” and makes everything look like you’re watching the work of that particular auteur? There are any number of films that writer-director Matt Ruskin may be liberally borrowing from in his retelling of this real-life horror story, from The Silence of the Lambs to All the President’s Men to a gaggle of other New Hollywood classics, but one particular well of inspiration keeps trumping the others: This wants to be the Beantown Zodiac so bad it’s damn near distracting (or at the very least, a lesser episode of Fincher & Co.’s Manhunter).
That Boston Strangler gets nowhere near that level of storytelling or filmmaking is a given, since few films do. Yet the way it keeps aping that prefab visual palette — a sort of Serial Killer Moral Rot 101 template — almost feels like its aiming for a shortcut in terms of narrative stickiness and cinematic sickliness. Worse, the reliance on the shot-through-a-dirty-fishtank look ultimately starts undercutting what is good about the movie: the work of its leads (Coon is especially good, and puts her patented weary line readings to great use here); the icky presence of Dastmalchian, one of the most reliable go-to Screen Creeps working today; a who’s who of incredible character actors (Alessandro Nivola, Robert Burke, Chris Cooper, Rory Cochrane, Peter Gerety); a palpable sense of New England working-class life that almost but never quite hits pawking-lawt levels of parody. It may hint that the bad guy at the center of if all wasn’t the primary villain. But the movie does prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it is its own worst enemy.