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The Boston Strangler Review: A Gripping Story Inside A Middling Drama

Keira Knightley enters the true crime game

Between the overwhelming success of Hulu’s true-crime docuseries, to narrative Netflix productions like Dahmer, to meta commentary explorations like Only Murders in the Building, there’s no doubt about it—true crime isn’t going anywhere any time soon. The latest unsolved case that Hollywood taking a crack at is The Boston Strangler. The Hulu true crime flick is based on the 1960s murders reported under the same name. Though the Boston Strangler case itself is undoubtedly a gripping one and the cast delivers all-around solid performances, the shaky direction and lackluster script hold this period thriller back from being truly memorable.

Starring Keira Knightley, The Boston Strangler tells the true story of Loretta McLaughlin, a Boston journalist who becomes the first person to connect a series of gruesome murders, breaking the story of the Boston Strangler. Initially, Loretta’s biggest problems are facing workplace resistance about covering the story. But the deeper she digs with the help of veteran investigative journalist Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), the more she realizes how far the reach of the case truly goes.

A compelling female-led narrative

At the heart of any true crime film is a simple question — is this story a compelling one? True crime as a genre lives and dies on the strength of the narrative itself. There’s no doubt that the story of the Boston Strangler is a twisted, tragic, unsettling one that lends itself uncannily well to adaption as a feature film. More than that, The Boston Strangler sets itself apart by also functioning as a pseudo-biopic for McLaughlin and her trailblazing efforts in investigative journalism.

The complicated, pulse-pounding narrative of Boston Strangler is undoubtedly its greatest strength, particularly once it really gets going around the 45 minute mark. There’s enough plot twists and revelations (based in truth) to make for a serviceable thriller. Kiera Knightley’s performance, too, lends credibility to what otherwise would have been a skippable endeavor. Loretta is saddled with the customary “can a working woman also have a fulfilling family life?” storyline, but Knightley’s remarkable ability to elevate the most predictable of dialogue is commendable. Especially when playing across Morgan Spector as James, Loretta’s husband.

The other standout among a cast of strong ensemble players is Carrie Coon as Jean Cole, a seasoned investigative journalist and the only other woman in Loretta’s office with crime reporting experience. Though Loretta is initially resistant to Jean’s help and oversight, the two go on to form a close-knit bond as they work side-by-side to connect the dots on who’s truly behind the stranglings. Coon brings a strength and wisdom to Jean that tells the story of a woman more than used to being underestimated. Despite her no-nonsense attitude in the office, there’s also a remarkable warmth in Jean’s relationship with Loretta. Their friendship adds a welcome element of charm to an otherwise dark, brooding film.

What holds The Boston Strangler back

The Boston Strangler has all the right pieces on the board: a whopper of a true crime case from which to pull and a pair of compelling women as its leads. But where it falters is the execution—most frustratingly, the script and direction. Director Matt Ruskin turns out a serviceable thriller, but there’s nothing new or interesting that Boston Strangler brings to the table that hasn’t already been done by half a dozen more well-written and compellingly directed films.

The script, too, feels predictable and under-baked, most notably in the aforementioned plot surrounding Loretta and the tensions between her work and family life. Yes, that difficult balance (especially in the 1960s) was a troubling one for women in the workplace. But the script doesn’t explore it much deeper than surface-level tensions between Loretta and her husband, nor does it resolve her internal struggle in a compelling or even satisfactory way.

Put simply, there’s a phoned-in quality to the script and direction of The Boston Strangler which holds it back from being the severe, female-led period crime thriller it could’ve been.

(Featured image: Hulu / 20th Century Studios)

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Lauren Coates is a Chicago-based film & television critic and freelance journalist who works as a contributing writer for The Mary Sue. You can find her on Twitter @laurenjcoates and read more of her work on Culturess.