Review: Boston Strangler Explores the Gender Politics and Misogyny in 1960s Serial Killer Case

With the rampant popularity of true-crime stories in all possible mediums, it’s no surprise that the tale of the so-called Boston Strangler finally makes it to a movie screen, loaded with a great cast and two lead performances worthy of awards consideration. What I wasn’t expecting from the film Boston Strangler was the way it uses the case to highlight the overt sexism that played a part in the 13 (possibly more) murders going unsolved for so long by the Boston Police in the early 1960s, and how it uncovers the way two female investigative reporters were treated by police and their male coworkers while they did a better job finding the connections among the killings than the investigators did.

From writer/director Matt Ruskin (Crown Heights), the movie follows the story of Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley), a writer for the homemaking section of a Boston-area newspaper. But when she notices various stories in other local papers about a series of murders of elderly women in Boston, all being found dead in similar, posed positions with stockings tied around their necks, she asks her editor (Chris Cooper) if she can look into it in her free time. When she confirms the similarities in the cases, the story runs, and there’s an immediate backlash from local police, including the commissioner (Bill Camp). They aren’t saying she got any facts wrong, but they are pissed she broke a serial killer case before they did. 

Not looking to rock the boat or embarrass the police, Cooper allows McLaughlin to continue looking into the cases (a few more crop up in the interim), but only if she works with veteran investigative reporter (and the only woman investigator on staff) Jean Cole (Carrie Coon). The two form a force that is greater than the sum of its parts, with Cole teaching her rookie counterpart a few new tricks, but with McLaughlin’s inherent drive taking her places even Cole doesn’t anticipate. Of course, none of this makes them immune to the constant barrage of sexist remarks and behaviors, especially by the police.

Boston Strangler goes deeper than I was expecting into the personal lives of both women, which normally I would think is unnecessary. But in a story in which gender roles are at the root of so many elements, the expectations of their families are crucial to developing their characters. McLaughlin’s husband (Morgan Spector) is proud and supportive of his wife when she’s first given the Strangler assignment, but after many nights of working late, even he starts to bristle.

The film shifts slightly from journalism profile to thriller in its second half, when both the reporters and police start to narrow their suspect list. But the police are so slow to respond to legitimate leads, the paper turns a corner and publishes a scathing assessment of the pathetic police response to so many women being killed, some in the light of day, the implication being that because these were women, the cases were given a lower priority. Boston Strangler tells its story with a combination of broad strokes and really wonderful details about the various victims, witnesses, and possible suspects, making us as unsure about the killer’s identity as everyone else is. When the Strangler’s M.O. changes in the middle of the run of murders, there’s even a concern that the killer may be more than one person, or someone hiding behind the Strangler’s patterns to hide his unrelated killings. The investigation is more of a maze than a jigsaw puzzle, and director Ruskin does an admirable job keeping things straight even when those in his story are unable to.

A late-in-the-film appearance from Chicago’s own David Dastmalchian as lead suspect Albert DeSalvo only ups the creep quotient of Boston Strangler, but even after DeSalvo confesses, McLaughlin isn’t convinced he’s the guy and for good reason. The film keeps its characters and audience guessing in a way that is both frustrating and completely telling. In one scene, McLaughlin’s police detective source, played by Alessandro Nivola, breaks her heart when he tells her that her prime suspect has alibis for the first six murders. He says to her “That feeling you have right now—that’s every day for me,” in an attempt to explain that the police are being methodical to avoid wasting time going down the wrong rabbit holes. It’s a fair play, and the film tells its true story with an honest hand, complete with loads of period-specific and geographically accurate misogyny.

Knightly and Coon are stone-cold killers behind their typewriters and in the field, and it does wonders for the film’s authenticity to see them dig into a theory and watch how it plays out—even when it’s not in their favor. The film has a few flawed moments of trumped-up drama where there doesn’t need to be any, but beyond that, it feels believable and beautifully driven, much like its protagonists.

The film begins streaming on Hulu on Friday, March 17.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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