Is there a place for female empowerment in true crime? Maybe but boston strangler, a drama based on a series of murders committed against women in the 1960s, is not where you will find it.
Writer/director Matt Ruskin tries to balance the unmistakable misogyny of the murders themselves by centering the story not on the titular culprit (or culprits) but on a fearless journalist. Loretta McLaughlin(Opens in a new tab)who first pointed out the possibility of a serial killer (especially before this term(Opens in a new tab) was even in the vernacular). However, Ruskin’s performance of her “inspired by true events” narrative feels less like a feminist historical thriller in the vein of hidden numbers Or She says, and no longer a clumsy, macabre imitation of David Fincher’s seminal Zodiac. The resulting film is a crime against cinema on several counts.
boston strangler fly brazenly Zodiac.
Credit: 20th Century Studios
It may be unfair to compare a contemporary version to the 2007 version Zodiac, which despite a complete lack of Oscar nominations only gets better with age. Inspired by cartoonist-turned-civilian detective Robert Graysmith’s comprehensive book on the Zodiac Killer, Fincher’s film pushed audiences on the hunt for this deadly menace, not only following several of his would-be captors, but also integrating us into the victims a few minutes before the attacks. The specificity of his scenes – from “Hurdy Gurdy Man” over a car stereo to the comedic theatrics of an Aqua Velva cocktail – brought all the characters to life, enveloping the audience in the intense fear and paranoia that made each man from northern California a threatening suspect.
From these configurations alone, it is logical that Ruskin could model boston strangler on Zodiac. Her real world killer(Opens in a new tab) also tormented a town by attacking unsuspecting women with no apparent connection. The investigation also involved questions of police jurisdiction, conflicts with the press and a courageous downtrodden investigator. This time, instead of a socially awkward cartoonist (a sensationally awkward but uptight Jake Gyllenhaal) underrated for all his quirks, the protagonist is an ambitious journalist (a dedicated but determined Keira Knightley), underrated because she is a woman.
These two unlikely heroes even share the experience of receiving threatening phone calls filled with heavy breathing, as well as a scene where each follows a suspect through a dark cavernous space while pursuing a lead. However, Ruskin doesn’t possess the gravitas or the patience to build tension and character like Fincher did. This narrow breakaway plays with chills that give goosebumps in Zodiacbut in boston strangler, the scene is shorter and clumsier, with the suspect being so creepy from the start that we are immediately alerted and urge Loretta to flee. Doesn’t this terribly naive journalist read her own fucking articles? Rather than a masterful visual storytelling based on complex characters, boston strangler is a series of abrupt gestures and rude clichés.
Keira Knightley can’t get over the film’s selfish and fragile white feminism.
Credit: 20th Century Studios
Forget the affluent world of San Francisco, where newsrooms teem with colorful characters and lovers’ lane buzzes with sexual tension and relatable drama. Ruskin’s Boston of the 1960s is populated by tired archetypes, many of whom are vivid reminders of patriarchal oppression. There’s the contemptuous boss (Chris Cooper), who urges Loretta to get away from crime and go through household items; the smiling cop (Alessandro Nivola), who treats every wrong turn in the case like a new game; and the Grumpy Husband (Morgan Spector), who only exists to remind us that Loretta also has responsibilities around the house, like babysitting and telling her husband he’s one of the good ones.
While views on a journalist’s family life were based on She says and served to remind audiences of the immense emotional labor these women undertook professionally and personally, similar scenes of domesticity in boston strangler are terribly conventional. Loretta has no poignant scenes with her children, and she mostly seems to be enduring her husband rather than liking him. Either Ruskin is bored with the concept of a woman’s role in the home, or is trying to mirror Loretta’s boredom. The latter could be praised if its character was well defined elsewhere. Instead, Loretta’s bow is littered with cringe-worthy details used as a shortcut to being a Strong feminine character(Opens in a new tab) instead of actual character development.
Surrounded by female reporters in the lifestyle section, her puckered brow and nose for hard-hitting murder news defines her as resolutely not like other girls. So, she winces at first when she discovers that there is already a reporter covering “serious” news. (Carrie Coon, as real-life journalist Jean Cole, is solid even in this thankless mentor role). The rivalry between female colleagues rears its ugly head, but before it can whistle “Catfight!” the pair inevitably become quick allies. After all, they may not be like other girls…together!
Loretta’s motivation to pursue the case seems mostly wrung out of desperation to secure a decent signing, which is a potentially compelling character flaw of blind ambition. But then Ruskin quickly takes her into rah-rah talk about patriarchy and gender-based violence, as if empowering women is her goal the whole time. Giving his obsession with these gruesome crimes a scintillating, selfless veneer further erodes what could have been a compelling story of conflicting motivations.
It’s easy to imagine that the girl power monologue, however blunt and abrupt, might have been the lure of Knightley’s involvement. To her credit, she’s serious about the role, even if her attempt at an American accent sounds a bit too sharp to feel authentic. As the story unfolds into a convoluted third act, Knightley is lost amid plot twists and increasingly dark directorial choices that make boston strangler feeling painfully dated.
boston strangler gives a crude spectacle of real victims.
Credit: 20th Century Studios
Again we turn to Zodiac, where Fincher weighted gruesome murder scenes with moments from the lives of the victims, allowing us to slip into their moonlit date or sunny picnic and feel the impossible loss of each death. He made them real people for his audience, reminding us of their humanity and reclaiming them from time and headlines. Ruskin does no such service to the victims in his film.
Crime scene photos dizzily shed the gory “decorative” details, while muffled voices whisper the elements that couldn’t be shown even in an R-rated movie. These victims boil down to widows, roommates, or bachelors. Their names are dropped like rude confetti, but no effort is made to show who they were. The closest we get is seeing a victim prepare a bath before they’re ambushed, but even that gesture feels vaguely feminine rather than expressive of who they were. Thus, these women – their deaths, their names, their lives, their pains – are considered by the camera as a simple morbid spectacle, which clashes with the supposed message of the film.
From there, Ruskin’s screenplay relishes true-crime’s worst impulses, with Loretta spinning dark poetry in her reporting and striking fear into audiences. It could actually be taken from his actual writings, but the conversation around the ethics of true crime reporting (and consumption) has come a long way since 1962. It’s shameful that Ruskin refuses to respect that.
Even the color scheme of his film disturbs. A dull gray covers each scene, perhaps intended to evoke seriousness and drama. To me, it looked like a fine layer of dust, suggesting the patina of the past that means these concerns for women’s safety and mental health are just distant, unpleasant memories. As if to say “Return SO, women were carelessly looked down upon at work, lived in fear that some random man might snatch their bodily autonomy or kill them. Can you imagine?”
Yes, Matt. We can.
boston strangler debuts on Hulu on March 17.