Boston Strangler on Disney + review: completely runs out of steam
In 1963, journalists Jean Cole and Loretta McLaughlin published a four-part series about The Boston Strangler in the Record American newspaper (which later became the Boston Herald).
The killer had been stalking the streets of the city for a year, murdering single women – usually by strangulation – somehow entering and leaving their apartments like a phantom. Women in the city were terrified: some moved away, some bought special bolts for the door or went to stay with friends.
This infamous story has now been reimagined in a new star-studded Disney+ film produced by Ridley Scott, and starring Keira Knightley as reporter McLaughlin. Although all the elements are there for a spine-tingling Zodiac-style mystery thriller, the film fails to build any real momentum and ends up completely running out of steam.
McLaughlin is on the lifestyle desk but wants more of a challenge: as the film opens she’s been asked to review a toaster. Seasoned journalist Cole (played by the spectacular Carrie Coon) agrees to help McLaughlin when their editor, Jack (Chris Cooper), gives in and lets her have a go at reporting the killings.
Approaching the case from McLaughlin’s perspective is a smart move by writer and director Matt Ruskin, not just telling the story through the eyes of the women who pursue the killer, but to probe different levels of misogyny and violence in society at the time – in the newsroom, at home, and outside as McLaughlin goes about her job. His underlying argument runs throughout the grey-tone film, and is made explicit at the end. “Your safe little world is just an illusion,” one character says. “Men kill women.”
In his attempts to communicate this dangerous world, Ruskin explores whether it really was only Albert DeSalvo who committed all the crimes, and the plot gets lost. The narrative spins in several directions and gets seriously stodgy; though perhaps it does illustrate how the real-life Boston police became bogged down in the case (they had as many as 400 possible suspects and interviewed 3,000 people) but it doesn’t make for thrilling TV.
Knightley is persuasive as McLaughlin but the character is also limited by the plot, as we find out very little about the character’s wider life (other than the fact her husband starts to tire of her work schedule) or indeed her interior life.
The film has been drawing some criticism for presenting an overly sanitised version of the Boston Strangler case: in most of the murder scenes you only see the killer approaching the women, and later see their limp bodies sprawled out across their beds, now adorned with his signature – their stockings tied in a bow around their necks. There is no Argento-style blood splattered across the walls and you don’t get many more gory details of his acts.
But this doesn’t come across as affected. If anything, it’s better, and more ambitious, than the alternative (we all know that gritty crime pulls in viewers) because it focuses all attention on the police and the journalists’ investigations. Their story was worth focusing on, if only it had just been done better.
The Boston Strangler is streaming now on Disney+