Bostonians prefer not to talk about their city’s ugly history of discrimination: the institutional expansions that have threatened its Chinatown neighborhood since the 1920s, the 1970s busing crisis, the racist crap its population of rabid sports fans spew at visiting basketball teams’ Black players at TD Garden. Matt Ruskin’s new film Boston Strangler dramatizes ugly history of a different sort: the reign of the title serial killer, who during the early 1960s took the lives of 13 women unhindered by authorities, and whose identity is canopied by a question mark.
To address the ugliness of this chapter in Boston’s past, Ruskin adopts a needlessly ugly style. According to his camera, 1960s Boston’s architecture and landscape were both drained of nearly all traces of color, replaced by a dreariness that perhaps explains why being devoutly miserable is a birthright for locals as much as an unhealthy loyalty to Dunkin Donuts. Gray and sepia tones pervade nearly every single shot, announcing too much of what’s already clear through his material. As with Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, the straightforwardly stomach-churning and sorrowful elements of the film’s story should speak for themselves. The killer’s (or killers’) active years were a time of justified paranoia and pervasive fear for women; any stranger claiming the building super sent him to check the radiator might be the Grim Reaper in a maintenance suit.
In other words, it’s okay for a film about that figure, and about the panic that blanketed Boston during their murder spree, to occasionally indulge a splash of color here and there in its frames. The overwhelming visual reminders, meant to impress upon the audience both the period setting and a sense of realism, aren’t necessary. Boston Strangler doesn’t need the somber tones to convince of its seriousness, with Ruskin focusing on neither the killer (or, again, killers) or the ignoble bumbling schmucks at the Boston Police Department, but rather the brave journalists responsible for investigating this ugly case.
The real-life journalists portrayed here are both women: Jean Cole (Carrie Coon) and Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley), a reporter so determined to nail the Strangler to the walls that she weathered the frustration of her boss at the Record American, the apparent composite character Jack Maclaine (Chris Cooper); the Attorney General (Robert John Burke); her husband James (Morgan Spector); and of course the BPD, represented by Commissioner McNamara (Bill Camp), a grouchy, withholding prick who’d rather people die than accept accountability for his officers’ inability to find their asses with both hands. By happy fate, the detail of Loretta and Jean’s gender dovetails nicely with what Ruskin makes into his running theme: How the atmosphere that settled over Boston during these years affected women, even hard-nosed journalists on the Strangler’s trail, and made the thought of being alone anywhere into a trigger for mortal terror.
Boston Strangler toes genre lines when its perspective fixes on some of the Strangler’s victims; Ruskin and cinematographer Ben Kutchins shoot these sequences in stillness and initial quiet, letting tension build using the language of thrillers and horror cinema. The true-crime niche habitually distances itself from the actual crime; Ruskin prefers proximity. He’s working more in the space occupied by films like Zodiac, understanding that it’s incumbent on him to give those murders their due not just by talking about them but by recreating them. Some viewers may call this exploitative. In Boston Strangler’s context, it’s fundamental.
Knightley plays McLaughlin’s steel simply by holding static expressions that emphasize her most prominent, dynamic feature: her chiseled jawline. Even a static glance conveys the unyielding message that no, she will not back down, and no, she will not stop, and why the hell is she doing this by herself? Even Jean jumps ship occasionally, Coon’s usual unruffled cool supplying an empathetic reason for leaving behind the Stranger case in favor of a new assignment. Everyone wants to move on.
For an audience in 2023, all too accustomed to the impulse to move on from an endless parade of tragedies and traumas, this is a shared sentiment. What Boston Strangler does so well, possibly without meaning to, is tap into a contemporary exhaustion at an event that’s long worn out its welcome, and which wasn’t welcome in the first place. Ruskin’s film argues that people will inevitably want to move on from unfinished business even when that business is a matter of actual life and death. When we feel that we’ve been promised a tidy wrap-up, and are denied it from those in charge of the wrapping, we turn our backs, returning to focus on workaday inconveniences and kerfuffles.
What the movie does less well is realize this argument with a clear-eyed artistic vision. Dare to use proper lighting. Dare to breathe vibrancy into your palette. Dare to let real life look like real life instead of sucking all the vitality out of it, most of all when the spirit of the work is recognizable despite the discrepancies in the particulars. Ruskin’s examination of the social and political elements that enabled the Strangler, and which held people like McLaughlin in contempt for attempting to serve the public good, is bold. In his next film, he should apply that same boldness toward an aesthetic purpose, too.
Director: Matt Ruskin
Writer: Matt Ruskin
Starring: Keira Knightley, Carrie Coon, Chris Cooper, Alessandro Nivola, Rory Cochrane, David Dastmalchian, Bill Camp, Morgan Spector, Robert John Burke
Release Date: March 17, 2023
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.