Review: Two women track serial killer in Hulu’s ‘The Boston Strangler’

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'The Boston Strangler'

In 1968, Richard Fleischer (“Soylent Green”) directed an adaptation of Gerold Frank’s 1966 crime book “The Boston Strangler” starring Henry Fonda as a detective tracking down a serial killer played by Tony Curtis.

Now, the true crime story gets retold from the perspective of the two women reporters who covered the case in “The Boston Strangler,” which premiered as a Hulu original film last Friday in time for St. Patrick’s Day.

Based on an actual series of murders that sent shock waves through 1960s Boston, the film follows journalists Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) and Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), who first broke the story of The Boston Strangler, a notorious serial killer who used his victims’ stockings to tie neat bows around their lifeless necks.

While best known for action blockbusters like “Pirates of the Caribbean” (2003-2007), Knightley has proven her dramatic chops, earning Oscar nominations for “Pride & Prejudice” (2005) and “The Imitation Game” (2014). This time her face tells the story, nervously deciding whether to proceed into the backroom of a suspect’s home or flee out the front the door, then trying to keep her composure when a stranger makes threatening calls to her home.

Coon is a formidable screen partner, having carried one of the greatest TV series ever in HBO’s “The Leftovers” (2014-2017). Her role in “The Boston Strangler” is inspired casting, combining the mystery of David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” (2014), where she played Ben Affleck’s twin sister, with the journalism of Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” (2017), where she played The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial editor Meg Greenfield.

Together, they form a sharp duo of investigative reporters, starting as mere newsroom acquaintances, and then bonding over shared empathy for the victims and outrage over the crimes. By the end, they can sit at a bar, raise a glass and not say a word to each other, yet know exactly what the other is thinking. Their expressions say it all.

It’s refreshing to see two women cracking the case after a century of male detectives from Sam Spade to Philip Marlowe to Jake Gittes. I suppose you could say Jodie Foster worked with Kasi Lemmons to catch Buffalo Bill in “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), proving that film was way ahead of its time, but examples are rare and recent, such as Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan exposing Harvey Weinstein in the highly underrated “She Said” (2022).

The thematic subtext of “The Boston Strangler” is the extreme misogyny these reporters face. When their editor Jack MacLaine (Chris Cooper) says, “You don’t have a story, you have a grudge,” they fire back, “How many women have to die before it’s a story?” It’s a fair question. They have a right to hold a grudge after decades of male predators, wondering just how quickly it would become a front-page story if it were men being killed every day.

Here, the prime suspects include George Nassar and Albert DeSalvo, respectively played by Greg Vrotsos and David Dastmalchian, the latter of whom was an excellent red herring for Hugh Jackman to interrogate in “Prisoners” (2013), a masterpiece of the genre and for my money the best film by director Denis Villeneuve.

A female filmmaker might have added a fresh spin to stand apart from the “male gaze” of countless past entries. Instead, writer/director Matt Ruskin will no doubt be unfairly compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Frenzy” (1972), which featured a similar plot of a necktie murderer of women and far more elaborate shots, including a long single-take backing down the staircase of a victim’s apartment and out into the street of complicit bystanders.

It’s tough being compared to the G.O.A.T. (as the upcoming “Vertigo” remake is about to find out).

Even so, Ruskin still remains a talented filmmaker, having won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival for “Crown Heights” (2017) starring LaKeith Stanfield. In “The Boston Strangler,” he gets the mood right, the tone is effective, the atmosphere is freaky, but the script simply leaves us wanting more. Perhaps it would have been better fleshed out as a TV series like “True Detective” (2014). As is, the film ends on a less than satisfying note.

Conclusions don’t always need to have shocking twists like David Fincher’s “Se7en” (1995), but even the ambiguous ending of “Zodiac” (2007) hinted with knowing mischief. Alas, not every serial-killer movie can be a Fincher home run, and “The Boston Strangler” is at least on the level of John Lee Hancock’s “The Little Things” (2021). That means true-crime fans will probably still enjoy it, even if regular folks don’t find it as compelling.

3.5 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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