Movie Reviews

‘Boston Strangler’ review: Keira Knightley shines in true crime movie

Like "Zodiac" or "Spotlight" before it, "Boston Strangler" showcases the power of journalism done right.

Keira Knightley in "Boston Strangler"
Keira Knightley in "Boston Strangler" 20th Century Studios

Call me biased, but I love a good newspaper movie. From “All the President’s Men” to “Spotlight,” watching on-screen journalists chase down leads, build sources, and file copy is nothing short of thrilling. “Boston Strangler,” which debuts March 17 on Hulu, has a worthy argument to join those aforementioned titles in the pantheon of journalism films, recounting one of Boston’s most infamous crime waves through the eyes of two reporters covering the story.

“Boston Strangler” centers around Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley, “Pirates of the Caribbean”), a reporter for the Boston Record-American (which later merged with the Boston Herald) in the early 1960s. McLaughlin is eager to prove her reporting chops, but her dismissive editor (Chris Cooper, “Adaptation”) has her stuck on the lifestyle beat reviewing toasters.

Despite facing sexist headwinds at the office and from Boston police, McLaughlin and fellow reporter Jean Cole (Carrie Coon, “The Leftovers”) begin to discover connections between a number of grisly murders in Boston and the surrounding area. All of the victims (at least initially) are older women, all of them have been sexually assaulted, and all of them have been strangled.


Knightley is perfect in the role of McLaughlin, able to convey her dogged determination with a single steely glance. She meets the challenges of being a woman at a newspaper in the 1960s head on, dispelling doubts about her reporting sowed by angry BPD officials. With the help of a sympathetic detective (Boston native Alessandro Nivola, “The Many Saints of Newark”), McLaughlin and Cole keep people informed and become media sensations in their own right.

Filmed in Boston and surrounding towns, “Boston Strangler” nails the look and feel of the city in the 1960s, from the locations to period-appropriate wardrobe. Director Matt Ruskin (“Crown Heights”) lights the film in murky grays and muted greens, capturing the fog of uncertainty and fear the public lived under at the time.

Ruskin also takes great pains to avoid the pratfalls of contemporary true crime stories, which tend to over-simplify source material and lean heavily on lurid reenactments. “Boston Strangler” only ever shows the titular killer (or killers) in the shadows, and the rare reenactment of a murder never indulges in the torture porn of lesser true crime schlock like Netflix’s “Dahmer.” Much like David Fincher’s “Zodiac” — to which “Boston Strangler” owes a debt of gratitude — all of the focus is on the journalists unraveling the case.

Keira Knightley as Loretta McLaughlin and Chris Cooper as Jack MacLaine in 20th Century Studios' “Boston Strangler,” on Hulu.
Keira Knightley and Chris Cooper in “Boston Strangler.” (20th Century Studios)

If “Boston Strangler” has one weakness, it’s that the film is too focused on the nuts and bolts of the case and doesn’t properly develop relationships between the characters. McLaughlin and Coon have a few moments to commiserate about balancing the demands of parenting and chasing the story, but McLaughlin’s chemistry with Cooper’s editor and Nivola’s detective feels perfunctory.


That lack of rapport is likely an intentional decision from Ruskin, as it mirrors how McLaughlin’s years-long obsession with the killings impacted her personal life. (In the film, Loretta’s husband, initially supportive of her work, later becomes exasperated with her absences, and in real life the couple divorced.) Nevertheless, the film could have been improved with slightly more attention to the interpersonal.

Watching “Boston Strangler,” you can understand why McLaughlin or anyone else might have become engrossed in the Strangler saga. The film doesn’t buy the official story that Albert DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian, “The Dark Knight”) was solely responsible for the murders, and introduces audiences unfamiliar to the case to the rogue’s gallery of characters who orbit the murders, from fellow inmate George Nassar to jilted ex (and composite character) Daniel Marsh to power-broker attorney F. Lee Bailey.

Like “Zodiac” before it, “Boston Strangler” refuses to cut corners and provide an easy hero-villain narrative, instead telling the story of a 1960s serial killer without hewing to easy narratives. At a time when seemingly every streaming services debuts new true-crime programming on a weekly basis, “Boston Strangler” stands far above the crowd.

Rating: 3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

“Boston Strangler” will begin streaming on Hulu on Friday, March 17.


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