Boston Strangler (2023) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A dry, middling true crime drama

“Boston Stranger”, which is currently available on Disney+, is a dry, middling true crime drama which does not distinguish itself much in its growing genre territory. While surely reminiscent of not only “Spotlight” (2015) but also “Zodiac” (2007), the movie somehow fails to generate enough interest for us despite its undeniably compelling (and chilling) real-life story, and you can only appreciate some good efforts on and behind the screen.

Keira Knightley plays Loretta McLaughlin, a young married woman who also worked as a reporter of Boston Record American in 1962. Although she and her husband already have three kids to raise at their suburban residence, that does not stop her at all, but she often gets frustrated because her chief editor Jack MacLaine (Chris Cooper) still does not allow her to do what she really wants to do as a reporter. She is eager to cover those criminal cases out there, but, not so surprisingly, she is usually instructed to handle the articles for housewives just because of the gender prejudice against her, and she certainly envies how Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), another female reporter at her workplace, is allowed to work outside with considerable success.

On one day, something happens to draw McLaughlin’s attention. She comes to notice that there are at least three murder cases which share a suspiciously similar pattern, so she decides to investigate these murder cases more, and, what do you know, she soon comes to realize the possibility of a serial killer prowling somewhere in the city. Although her chief editor is rather skeptical at first, he decides to publish her article about the serial killer anyway, and, what do you know, that turns out to be her first big break as drawing lots of attention from the public.

The situation becomes all the more serious as the Boston Police, who are incidentally not so pleased about McLaughlin’s reporting, start to be more active in the ongoing investigation, and McLaughlin is soon partnered with Cole, who turns out to be more helpful than expected as a seasoned professional who can easily access to off-the-record sources if that is necessary for their big task. While the serial killer, who is eventually named “the Boston Strangler”, continues to kill more women, both McLaughlin and Cole become more passionate about their job, and they even find themselves becoming considerable public figures because their newspaper subsequently promotes them as its two star reporters.

However, the more McLaughlin and Cole become involved with the case, the more they become frustrated and exasperated. The Boston Police turn out to be quite incompetent in their investigation to say the least, and McLaughlin later comes to learn that they even overlooked someone who can be the prime suspect just because they were not so eager to cooperate much with other police departments outside the city. Once McLaughlin delves more into this matter, the Boston Police eventually arrests that prime suspect in question, but there are still many things remaining unresolved or unanswered, and McLaughlin becomes more determined to get to the bottom of the case, though even Cole is not so willing to help or support her on that.

As McLaughlin continues to do more reporting by herself alone, director/writer Matt Ruskin’s screenplay gradually reveals how complicated the case actually was behind its supposedly clean-cut ending with the incarceration of that prime suspect. Although that prime suspect later turned out to be linked with the DNA evidence from the last victim, the movie suggests that the truth may be quite stranger than fiction, and we are chilled by how willing both the public and the Boston Police were to ignore many questions and problems just for getting the closure for the case as soon as possible.

This is certainly a fascinating true crime story, but the movie frequently gets itself compared with “Zodiac” and other true crime drama stuffs out there. Although Ruskin and his cinematographer Ben Kutchins did a good job of injecting a gloomy sense of anxiety and confusion into the screen, the result is no more than a pale imitation of what was so wonderfully achieved in “Zodiac”, and it also fails to reach to the sublime level of “Spotlight”, which is more restrained but much more powerful as it patiently and masterfully observes its main characters’ investigative reporting process.

Moreover, many of main characters in the film feel rather flat on the whole, and that often hinders the solid performances from some of them. While Knightley diligently carries the film as required, Carrie Coon, who has been one of the most dependable character actresses working in Hollywood since she drew the attention from me and others via her scene-stealing supporting turn in “Gone Girl” (2014), ably supports Knightley whenever that is necessary, and Alessandro Nivola manages to acquit himself well although he is stuck in a thankless supporting role like Bill Camp, Morgan Spector, David Dastmalchian, and Chris Cooper.

In conclusion, “Boston Stranger” is not a total waste of time at all, but it does not delve enough into its main subject, and I wonder whether its complex real-life story could be explored much more as it were a TV miniseries instead of a feature film. It surely tries to go further than “The Boston Stranger” (1967), and I admire that to some degree, but I doubt whether it will be remembered more than that little classic film which is actually a heavily fictional presentation of the case. Despite its questionable sensationalism, “The Boston Strangler” will linger on your mind longer than its colorless junior for good reasons, and maybe you should check it out first.

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