The ‘Boston Strangler’ killed 13 women. Who really cared?
Long before the current national craze of mass shootings, the crime phenomenon that kept ordinary citizens awake at night, listening for the scrape of a loose window or a soft knock at the door, was the lone serial killer. Zodiac. Ted Bundy. Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker. Kenneth Bianchi, the Hillside Strangler. Backwoods ghoul Ed Gein. Twisted drifter Richard Speck. Predatory clown John Wayne Gacy. And of course the “Boston Strangler.”
The above quotation marks are appropriate. The new true-crime thriller Boston Strangler convincingly reminds its audience that the “Boston Strangler” murders of the 1960s—the victims were 13 women of varying ages—were never completely solved, and that the “lone strangler’s” toll was undoubtedly the work of several individuals.
But the main narrative thrust of writer-director Matt Ruskin’s film is that if it weren’t for the determined efforts of two women newspaper reporters—Loretta McLaughlin (played by Keira Knightley) and Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), both of the Boston Record American—the story might never have been unearthed.
Loretta is a classic example of thwarted female ambition in mid-20th-century America. A married mother of three, she works in the Record American’s “women’s pages,” aka the Lifestyle Desk, where she has just been assigned to write a product review of a new toaster. However, her professional instincts draw her to a puzzling spate of Massachusetts murders. Someone is throttling and sexually assaulting senior women who live alone, and there’s no sign of forced entry to their homes, meaning the killer rings the doorbell and talks himself in.
Loretta’s boss, editor Jack Maclaine (Chris Cooper), simply will not hear of putting a woman into the paper’s all-male crime reporter bullpen. They’re too surly for her, and the boys down at the Boston PD won’t give a “skirt” the time of day.
Only Jean Cole, who has carved out her own turf as a tenacious, resourceful investigative writer with an undercover nursing-home exposé to her credit, is willing to listen to Loretta’s hunches. They gang up on Maclaine, get his grudging permission, hit the streets and, in those pre-digital days, start combing the phonebooks and talking to jailhouse snitches for leads.
On the surface of it, Boston Strangler is a very routine-looking thriller with a topical wrinkle, a portrait of the bad old days when women had to claw their way into jobs previously reserved for males, and were ridiculed (or worse) for their trouble. Knightley’s cautiously “brave” performance is of a piece with the jobs she’s been doing for years now; only Coon’s Jean offers that spark of spunk associated with the wise-mouthed newshounds of popular imagination.
And yet something happens in the movie’s last quarter, as the crimes’ pattern begins to spread itself out, like a stain on the sheets. The consensus of the day is that the Strangler’s sexual violence is so repulsive that only “real men,” like hard-boiled cops or bitter-mugged newsroom hacks, can stomach it for long enough to compose a story. Thus, the vicious abasement of women is strictly a matter for the eyes and ears of men.
The police can’t, or won’t, dig down deeper into the psychology of the numerous weirdos they find. And the news media, only too happy to boost circulation with a titillating sex murder, likewise recoil from what’s underneath. “The city can’t protect its women,” cries Loretta. The city can only shrug its shoulders and move on.
Late in the film, the ugly reality reaches a crescendo just as the suspense drains drily away. In the end, no one really wants to figure out who killed these people, for what reason, in what locale or exactly when. Filmmaker Ruskin’s rehash of director Richard Fleischer’s 1968 The Boston Strangler (starring Tony Curtis as prime suspect Albert DeSalvo) intentionally leaves its viewers in a wasteland. Laments Loretta: “Nobody bothered to get to the truth. People got away with murder.” Tough movie.