Boston Strangler Review: This Serial Killer Thriller Is Like The Lite Beer Version Of Zodiac

I love a good procedural picture all about journalists. I can't quite explain it — call it competency porn? — but there's something thrilling about watching pieces of entertainment focused on journalists doing their jobs. Pounding the pavement, getting scoops, running down leads, taking copious amounts of notes in tiny flip notebooks. That's the sort of stuff that has me sitting up and pointing at the screen like I'm Leonardo DiCaprio. Which means I was already sort of in the tank for "Boston Strangler" Matt Ruskin's mostly okay thriller about the female journalists who first put the pieces together and discovered a serial killer was stalking Boston in the 1960s.

There's plenty of Journalism Stuff going on here, as the characters work the phones and peck away at their typewriters, using the power of words to help catch a killer! How can you not be at least a little jazzed about that? Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for this sort of stuff only goes so far. I can get down with the journalism activities on display here, but they're not enough to completely elevate the film. Ultimately, "Boston Strangler" is the very definition of fine — it's not amazing, it's not a disaster. It does a competent job, no more, no less.

Zodiac Lite

No filmmaker has influenced the serial killer subgenre more than David Fincher. Fincher's moody "Seven" resulted in Hollywood churning out a string of darker-than-dark serial killer thrillers in the '90s. But it's Fincher's "Zodiac" that serves as the springboard for "Boston Strangler." Indeed, for a large chunk of the proceedings, "Boston Strangler" feels like the Lite Beer version of "Zodiac." There's even a scene that's a blatant rip-off of a much better "Zodiac" moment, where Jake Gyllenhaal's character finds himself in a creepy, dimly lit basement with someone who may or may not be the killer. You get the sense that writer-director Ruskin watched "Zodiac" a lot before sitting down to pen this film. Like the far superior "Zodiac," this isn't so much about the murders as it is about the obsessions of people examining the murders. 

It's the 1960s, and Loretta McLaughlin is a reporter for the Boston Record American (get used to that newspaper name; Loretta says it over and over again whenever she introduces herself). As played by Keira Knightley, Loretta is both a family woman and a hard-driven career gal who really wants to write serious stories. Unfortunately, because she's only a woman (gasp!), she's stuck on the lifestyle desk writing reviews of toasters. 

But Loretta isn't content to just sit back and eat toast — she's been doing her own digging and begins to think she's got the scoop on a big, big story: there's a killer out there stalking women in Boston (the term "serial killer" was not coined at the time of the events, but that's what we have here). The killer somehow works his way into the homes of women — usually older women — and brutally strangles them to death. It's disturbing stuff, but it seems like only Lorretta can tell the killings are related. In fact, when she finally convinces her editor (Chris Cooper) to write about the killings, the local cops immediately disown the story and claim it's not true. But it is true (... or is it?), and soon Loretta is teamed up with another female journalist, the tough-talking, take-no-b.s. Jean Cole (Carrie Coon). Loretta resents having to work with someone at first, but soon, the two reporters are putting their heads together to crack the case. 

Surface level stuff

"Boston Strangler" is at its best when it's focused on Loretta and Jean doing their jobs, but the film only scratches the surface of things. While "Zodiac" took its time to go deep into the minutiae of it all, and deliberately let its characters evolve over time, "Boston Strangler" is rather rote. It's a paint-by-numbers thriller, borrowing from much better movies that came before. We never really get a sense of who Loretta is, and Jean is even more undeveloped, which seems like a huge mistake given Coon's considerable talents. Alessandro Nivola does what he can with a generic cop role, but the character is only there to provide background — he never feels real. And there's plenty of moody, dimly-lit style here that helps create an ominous atmosphere, but after a while, you start to wish someone would turn a damn light on.

Still, as I said, I'm a sucker for movies about journalists doing their thing. And while "Boston Strangler" isn't a particularly good journalism movie, it's still a journalism movie. So I got a little thrill every time Loretta or Jean picked up the phones, or worked a cop for some info, or sat down to punch away at their typewriters. It's sturdy, dependable stuff, and it might do the trick for viewers not expecting a more traditional serial killer thriller. But if you're looking for something beyond a surface-level telling of a true story, you might just want to rewatch "Zodiac" again instead.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10