Friday, March 17, 2023

Boston Strangler: Riveting true-crime drama

Boston Strangler (2023) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Rated R, for profanity and violent content
Available via: Hulu
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.17.23

Writer/director Matt Ruskin’s new film is an excellent companion to last autumn’s She Said.


His fact-based account of the early 1960s serial killer is far more honest than its 1968 big-screen predecessor, with Tony Curtis in the title role; it focused exclusively on a lead detective — played by Henry Fonda — who “single-handedly” obtains the murderer’s confession.


After Jean Cole (Carrie Coon, left) and Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) become the
"public face" of the rapidly developing Boston Strangler story, they're soon flooded by
hundreds of letters from women who insist they've been approached by the killer.

That film is, to put it kindly, a work of fiction very loosely inspired by actual events.

It completely ignored the two newspaper journalists who — most crucially — broke the story; recognized the crucial patterns that pointed to a serial killer (a phrase not even coined, at the time); and doggedly pursued subsequent leads … much to the displeasure of the Boston police.


Both were women, of course: Boston Record-American journalists Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole, played here by (respectively) Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon.


We’ve lately been enjoying a welcome surfeit of films that shine a long-overdue light on previously unsung women of major consequence, from 2016’s Queen of Katwe and Hidden Figures, to last year’s The Woman King and She Said (all of which make me wonder how many more equally inspiring stories are waiting to be told).


Boston Strangler definitely belongs in their company.


Knightley’s McLaughlin is introduced as an ambitious journalist thoroughly bored — and frustrated — by the softball society column fluff to which she has been relegated. Efforts to cover meatier material get shot down by her editor, Jack Maclaine (Chris Cooper, appropriately gruff and grizzled), who is sympathetic but unwilling to budge.


The message is clear: “This is simply the way of things.”


But McLaughlin continues to follow police reports, and becomes intrigued by the murders of three Boston women, aged 56 to 85, during the latter half of June 1962. Lacking any effective inter-departmental means to share information, and with differing jurisdictional oversight in various parts of the city, the police fail to recognize a common element that links the killings: the fact that all three were strangled with nylon stockings or a bathrobe belt.


Another odd detail: None of the apartments showed signs of forced entry, suggesting that the victims either knew the killer, or assumed he was a “trusted” figure such as a building maintenance man, or some other service individual. (We roll our eyes, at the thought of such naïve, innocent times.)


McLaughlin wants to pursue this lead; Maclaine won’t have it. But he grudgingly agrees to let her profile the three victims — on her own time — to learn if they had anything else in common.


Two more similar murders follow in August, by which point McLaughlin knows she has a story. Maclaine no longer argues, but he’s also pragmatic; he partners her with Cole, who arrives in the newsroom following a merger between the Record-American and Boston’s Sunday Advertiser. Cole is a veteran investigative reporter, with solid — and helpful — contacts within various police departments.


She also has learned how to finesse uncooperative men not necessarily inclined to give her the time of day.


McLaughlin and Cole quickly become a classic cinematic staple: an oil and vinegar pair who initially have nothing in common, but pragmatically learn to bond, thus becoming a formidable team.


Knightley’s McLaughlin is impatient and impetuous; she comes off as brash and bothersome. Coon’s Cole — a savvy veteran — is seasoned and slightly mocking; she knows better, recognizing that more can be accomplished over a couple of beers, than by stridently demanding answers.


Even after they’ve earned Maclaine’s respect and permission to continue the story, this victory comes with a sexist touch: his insistence on fashion-forward byline photos, to “juice up” readership.


Alessandro Nivola is solid as Det. Conley (a fictitious character), who — being younger than the “old bulls” who surround him — is disenchanted with old-style policing methods, and sees a value in cutting-edge tactics. He’s thus a comrade-in-arms to McLaughlin, since both waste too much time arguing with entrenched attitudes that simply get in the way.


Not that “progress” is without error. While history would validate the then-novel concept of enlisting a psychiatrist to help profile a serial killer, Massachusetts Attorney Gen. Edward W. Brooke clearly erred — in real life — by involving Dutch parapsychologist Peter Hurkos, a notorious ESP advocate and “psychic entertainer.” (Ruskin wisely chooses not to focus on this embarrassing misstep.)


The most jaw-dropping takeaway almost defies belief: It quickly becomes obvious that Boston’s police and government establishments don’t want McLaughlin and Cole publicizing the case, because the two women are embarrassing them, and exposing their inadequacy. Their egos apparently are more important than the public service value of alerting the city’s women to be less trusting of strangers.


The unfolding case becomes unexpectedly complex, when an arrested suspect — Albert DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian) — attracts the attention of celebrated defense attorney F. Lee Bailey (Luke Kirby), by way of DeSalvo’s fellow cell mate, George Nassar (Greg Vrotsos).


On top of which, the pattern shifts: Following the two August 1962 murders, many of the subsequent victims are young women in their 20s.


Ruskin doesn’t give us much about Cole’s personal life, but considerable time is granted to McLaughlin’s home dynamic, as a devoted wife and mother to their three children. Her husband James (Morgan Spector) initially seems to be Loretta’s gung-ho cheerleader, but his attitude shifts as the “strangler case” becomes all-consuming. Ruskin’s subsequent handling of their relationship becomes a bit sloppy, and the lack of closure is an unfortunate flaw.


Although some concluding text blocks give a sense of McLaughlin and Cole’s subsequent careers, they don’t do the former sufficient justice. McLaughlin went on to an impressively substantial journalistic and writing career, as a medical news specialist and early critic of the shameful way the AIDS crisis initially was handled. (You gotta love her quoted take-down of U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms.)


She also played herself in a 2000 episode of the TV series Lawbreakers, devoted to the Boston Strangler. (It makes a thoughtful bookend to this film.)

Although Knightley, Coon, Cooper and Nivola deliver persuasive work, Ruskin’s film doesn’t have quite the dramatic heft of She Said; his tone and approach feel a bit old-fashioned, like the entrenched attitudes depicted here. Even so, this is a thoroughly engaging crime thriller that’ll certainly prompt additional research, after the end credits roll.


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