BOSTON STRANGLER – Review by Valerie Kalfrin

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The Hulu crime drama Boston Strangler is a decent journalism time capsule that aligns more with 2015’s Spotlight than with a suspenseful thriller like Silence of the Lambs. A mood piece with a core mystery much like 2007’s Zodiac—complete with similar gray-green cinematography and lighting—the film focuses more on the women journalists who broke the story of this real-life 1960s serial killer than the investigation itself.

The insider’s view of the newsroom and the sexism these women faced proves compelling, although true crime fans will find the procedural details and ambivalent resolution frustrating.

Writer-director Matt Ruskin (Crown Heights) based Boston Strangler on the actual work of Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole, journalists for the Record American (a precursor to The Boston Herald). The film covers the pair’s shoe-leather reporting of thirteen women sexually assaulted and killed in their homes at a time before investigators used terms like “serial killer.” To this day, DNA has linked only one slaying to a known suspect; whether the others were his work or that of copycats is unknown.

A married mom of three, Loretta (Keira Knightly, Silent Knight) writes for the paper’s lifestyle desk but craves meatier assignments beyond profiling candidates’ wives, offering diet tips, and reviewing the new Sunbeam toaster. When she notes that three local women have been strangled over the last two weeks, editor Jack Maclaine (Chris Cooper, Homecoming) says he already has six men working the crime beat, all rumpled with cigarettes and suspenders.

“I don’t see the interest. These are nobodies,” Jack says.

“Who do you think our readers are?” Loretta replies.

She begs to write about the slain women on her own time, and soon, Loretta learns a key detail linking the deaths: The killer tied the women’s stockings in a bow around their necks. Connecting these dots ratches up the public’s interest, heightens pressure on the police, and adds tension at home, where Loretta’s sister-in-law carps that her career will “ruin” her children.

Boston Strangler takes more time with Loretta’s personal life than that of Jean (Carrie Coon, The Gilded Age), a longtime reporter whom Jack assigns to work the story with her, thinking Loretta eager but green. The film becomes most compelling showing the women’s styles complementing each other, Knightly leaning into Loretta’s passion and indignation while Coon answers with cool, acerbic shrewdness.

Jean knows how to chat up the beat cops when Loretta gets the brush off, and how sometimes landing a key interview means dialing every person listed in the phone book with the same last name. Loretta, meanwhile, proves to have an empathetic ear. She develops a rapport with a beleaguered detective (Alessandro Nivola, Amsterdam) and the slain women’s relatives, including one mom who notes her daughter had been “doing all the things I wish I could’ve done with my own life.”

Viewers who can’t imagine life without the internet likely will find Loretta and Jean’s teamwork as fascinating as they’re astonished by the slain women’s naivete. Only one death has been linked through DNA to Albert DeSalvo, who confessed to all of them. Here, DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania) and the shadowy killer gain entrance to women’s homes by claiming to be a maintenance man who needs to eyeball the radiator or a modeling scout who “measures” thighs with his hands. (Shudder.) Ruskin thankfully doesn’t film the slayings gratuitously, although the film shows more of the attacks as they increase and the reporting reveals more details.

Boston Strangler loses some tension as the case winds toward its uncertain resolution, identifying more possible suspects and a high-powered attorney along the way. Still, having been a crime reporter for ten years, I was intrigued yet not surprised by how the embarrassed police—and the paper’s bosses—deflect Loretta and Jean’s work by questioning these “girl reporters” while “good men are busting their asses.”

The Record American apparently discovered that having two women on such a hot story sold more papers. Actual clippings from the time show how it featured Loretta and Jean in its coverage as if they were a novelty, running their photos with their bylines and photographing them at crime scenes. In the film, Jean waves away any concerns at first, although Loretta and her husband (Morgan Spector, The Gilded Age) understandably object, considering the killer at large and other wingnuts who phone their house.

The publicity nonetheless draws a sympathetic response from other women, who write to Loretta and Jean. There’s a sad yet universal understanding in one scene where the reporters read, “No one knows what a woman alone fears. No one knows fear as we know it.”

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Valerie Kalfrin

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist turned freelance film writer whose work appears at, In Their Own League, Script, The Hollywood Reporter, and other outlets. Also a screenwriter and script consultant, she’s passionate about challenging stereotypes about gender and disability. Let’s tell better stories and tell stories better.