April 14, 2023 | ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT | By Sophia Lisco
Content Warning: Mentions of violence against women
Which film is this scene from?
A reporter answers the phone late at night. The man on the other line breathes heavily into the phone. Frightened, the reporter quickly hangs up. When their partner asks what the call was, they say it was a wrong number. The increasing demands of their work has already added significant tension to the stability of their relationship.
Are you thinking of one? You probably are, and I’ll bet it’s a film that came out way before “Boston Strangler,” which was released on Hulu and Disney+ last month. The film, a cookie cutter newsroom drama, contains this exact scene and other similar filmic cliches.
Directed by Matt Ruskin, “Boston Strangler” features Keira Knightley as Loretta McLaughlin, a tenacious reporter following a string of violent deaths in Massachusetts. While the film attempts to depict a compelling true story, it leans heavily on the conventions of the genre which unfortunately results in a flat, predictable film.
Based on very true events, the film follows McLaughlin of the Record American newspaper as she investigates the patterned killings. As a young, female reporter, she faced an uphill battle in a male-dominated field where women weren’t considered capable of leading the investigation of very serious crimes and patterns. She was able to follow the case with the help of Jean Cole (played by Carrie Coon), an older, seasoned journalist who would be her collaborator as the two published a series of articles, spearheading the search for the Boston Strangler.
The narrative is certainly feminist in nature, evidenced by the two “underdog” woman reporters working to administer justice to the women who were violently sexually assaulted and murdered. There are a few nods to the specific issues they faced – McLaughlin is accused of flirting with interviewees, and the two women are used for publicity when the paper publishes their headshots, something they never did for male reporters – but I would hardly call “Boston Strangler” a feminist film.
Instead, the film takes bits and pieces from other newsroom/true crime dramas to create a mosaic of perfect mediocrity. This felt particularly true in a scene when McLaughlin meets a potential suspect at his home who beckons her in. The dimly lit room grows even creepier when viewers realize that he wears *gasp!* a scarf (strangulation humor, anyone?). This attempt at suspense felt like it was taken right out of Denis Villenueve’s “Prisoners” and, because everyone’s seen it before, it fell flat.
If we ignore the obvious and overused conventions of this genre, the narrative of the film itself proves to be enticing. McLaughlin and Cole chase down leads and expose the shortcomings and negligence of the Boston Police Department. Gaining access to case files, autopsy reports, and hospital records, the two relentlessly pursue justice for the victims and their families. The reporters learn that the killer would show up at the victims’ homes, posing as a maintenance worker or modelling agent, hoping to gain trust and entry.
Bodies were found with nylon stockings tied decoratively around their necks, which would eventually give the killer his nickname. The murders themselves are chilling, so the limited on-screen depictions of the actual violences are much appreciated. The police apprehend several suspects and navigate a sticky web of confessions, lies, and criminal networking. Despite promising leads, the Boston Strangler case remains unsolved.
Such an interesting true story would seemingly lend itself to a captivating film adaptation, yet Ruskin performed the bare minimum when bringing this case to the screen. Despite his laziness, Ruskin’s decision to focus on the trailblazing female reporters is commendable as the stories of McLaughlin and Cole are often overlooked. He also deserves credit for his attempts to remain true to the real events, while developing real-life relationships with the children of the reporters. Ultimately, however, the film is perhaps more educational than entertaining.
I can’t quite tell whether “Boston Strangler” is trying to be “Spotlight” or “Zodiac.” Yes, the film functions effectively as a newsroom drama, but it hardly transcends that trope. The serial killer movie has been brought to the screen again and again, and “Boston Strangler” didn’t do what it needed to in order to stand out, creating an undeniable feeling of repetition. David Fincher would have (and has) done it better.
“Boston Strangler” is available to stream now.