Boston Strangler Review:
The modern fascination with serial killers can be boiled down into one phrase: “people don’t want to look, but they can’t look away”. The sheer inscrutability of their actions is what drives the human eye towards them, as their unfathomable acts— which only seem to grow in brutality and abnormality as time drags on— continue to grip the masses. Morbidly drawing many to their violence not because they can’t comprehend them, but because they feel compelled to— caught in the tides of making sense of someone motivated by something that falls far out of our logical understandings of the world.
From Alfred Hitchcock’s canonical Psycho to the recent success of Netflix’s Dahmer, serial killers seem poised to capture and dominate the psyche of the cinematic landscape for eons to come. However, only a few films have tapped into this innate, gruesome fascination with such profundity as David Fincher’s masterful Zodiac. Its serial killer odyssey distills the human obsession that immortalizes such mass murderers, with its intricate pacing and insultingly cool visuals becoming the stuff of legends. The thriller is inseparable from the killer himself, manifesting as the watermark for every investigative procedural, whether it centers on a psychopath or not.
Matt Ruskin’s Boston Strangler, based on the infamous, unconfirmed murderer of more than a dozen women in the early 1960s, is clearly influenced by Fincher’s opus— practically wearing the film on its sleeve in each frame. Yet, its visual and thematic evocation of that thriller is utterly vapid, rendered so safe, predictable, and dull it makes one wish they were watching what inspired it instead. As its flat proceedings limp and shudder like the victims they detail, imbuing little life into this would-be fascinating and thought-provoking true story.
Keira Knightley stars as Loretta Mclaughlin, a reporter for the Record-American newspaper who is struggling to transcend her puff piece assignments. Yet, after the bodies of three elderly women are discovered, she’s the only journalist to publish a story connecting the murders. As the bodies pile up, Loretta continues her investigation alongside her colleague and confidant, Jean Cole (the wonderfully understated Carrie Coon), in the face of widespread sexism and bureaucratic pressures. Ultimately putting their own lives at risk to shed light on the true identity of the killer and the ugliness he unearths regarding the city of Boston itself.
Boston Strangler conveys its story with dark, sleek cinematography that festers with tobacco-like browns and splashes of yellow that are cut straight from Zodiac’s late 60s-early 70s cloth. Its visual tapestry oozes style, just not an original one. This is especially apparent in its criminal overuse of slow motion and a droning, overly familiar score. These combine to render the film a slog that rarely gives force and vigour to its revelations, intrigue, and ultimate social criticisms of the period. Even possible confrontations with the titular suspect are diluted by Ruskin’s overreliance on sonic and visual manipulation, with the score almost always cranked up to an eye-rolling level. The story’s yearnings for quiet, stripped-down moments of tension are repeatedly executed as formulaic beats that cross off the true-crime thriller checklist. The result is a film that is thoroughly lacking in an identity.
It is the sexually demented, provocative nature of the killer and his crimes that make this case so fascinating, especially given the period they occurred in. Yet, Ruskin’s screenplay never weaponizes the modern lens, manifesting as a bizarrely tame account that never delves into the depths of depravity and darkness the subject matter both requires and deserves. Boston Strangler (like Zodiac) centers on a faceless killer, but (unlike Zodiac) fails to cement him as a formidable, eerily human presence. Instead, he’s rendered a nonentity, a caricature of a mysterious killer. While much of the horror stems from how ordinary his silhouette is, very little time and effort is spared to flesh out the possible men behind the lurking shadow.
Though Ruskin and company’s casting of the ever-creepy, David Dastmalchian (who is no stranger to playing eerie predators), as the prime suspect is meant to conjure figures like John Carroll Lynch’s Arthur Leigh Allen in Zodiac, he is never given the time and space ruminate and elicit fear. Further wringing the film of an identity and cementing one that is not only doomed to be shrouded in the shadows of more layered works but unrecognizable from the swath of other mediocre films that litter the genre’s recent output.
Moreover, Ruskin also crafts a late sequence that virtually mimics the iconic basement scene from Zodiac, with Knightley’s Mclaughlin almost following a creepy informant into a dark backroom, as he tells her “We can talk just back here”. Yet, this iteration of the moment lacks all intrigue, flourish, and thematic resonance. Fincher employed his scene to tensely comment on the perils of crippling obsession, here it’s utilized as little more than shock value. Emptily aspiring to complete that all-important checklist, even if it means filling it in for all the wrong reasons.
Even the time jumps feel purposeless and jarring, opening with a murder and a leap back into the past that is never re-incorporated into the film’s narrative with grace, becoming just another event in the film’s mostly chronological account. begging the question as to why it needed to begin with a time jump in the first place. Fincher and company employed time-and-place interludes to seamlessly structure the film into two distinct but co-dependent sections, with the prolonged investigation continually imprinting itself on the ever-weary faces of the protagonists. An effect that is nowhere to be seen in Ruskin’s film, as the two central reporters look and feel no different from the start of the case to its flaccid end.
Boston Strangler is at its strongest when it details the journalistic process and the bureaucratic constraints it operates within, as pressures both external and internal aim to dictate and influence the ultimate direction of the investigation. Ruskin touches not only on the sexist lens of crime journalism during the era but deftly explores the levels of personal sacrifice one has to make to uncover the ugly truth. These moments are bolstered by Knightley’s nuanced turn and Chris Cooper’s vivid portrayal of the newspaper’s jaded yet supportive editor-in-chief. However, these sequences are encased in a dull mystery that gives them little room to breathe and germinate, eventually trudging towards an ending that is as straightforward as it is underwhelming.
Instead of being a labyrinth of numerous possibilities, where meaty crumbs of information are methodically doled out, Boston Strangler is a predictable thriller that begins exactly as it concludes— leaving no room for speculation and contemplation. A mystery wholly without enigma, only empowering stronger works that it seeks to emulate.
– Prabhjot Bains