‘Boston Strangler’ Review: Chasing a Killer (and a Byline)

You don’t have to look further than the pedestrian title to guess that Matt Ruskin’s “Boston Strangler” is a spiritless affair. That title is a sigh of resignation, an I-have-nothing moan, a cold shoulder to the movie’s stars. Apparently, it doesn’t even warrant a definite article.

Those stars — including Keira Knightley, Carrie Coon and Chris Cooper — probably expected better when they signed on for this trudge through a true-crime tale inspired by the infamous 1960s killings. Knightley plays Loretta McLaughlin, an ambitious lifestyles reporter with a yen for a zestier beat, who connects the dots between the first three murders and shames Boston homicide detectives into (albeit reluctantly) doing their jobs.

The role is perfect for Knightley, who has always been able to slot seamlessly into earlier eras. But Ruskin’s wan, emotionless screenplay — shockingly bloodless for a movie about more than a dozen murders — fails to give the character a single believable relationship. Not with her silent children or supportive husband (Morgan Spector), who flicker on the film’s margins, symbols of domesticity denied. Nor with her testy boss (Cooper), who considers the dead women “nobodies” and would like McLaughlin to get back to her toaster reviews. And not with the more savvy journalist (Coon) who becomes McLaughlin’s partner-in-sleuthing.

Despite the film’s flaccid gestures toward the sexism of the period — to boost sales, the women’s pictures are added to their bylines — “Boston Strangler” is a dreary, painfully stylized slog. Scared women scurry down cobbled streets; unseen dogs bark in the night. Washed in an unappetizing sludge of grayish green, the movie aims for serious and settles on bilious. The real McLaughlin was a fascinating, pioneering newshound; you’re unlikely to find her here.

Boston Strangler
Rated R for posed corpses and sickly complexions. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes. Watch on Hulu.

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