A “Zodiac” true story serial killer thriller earns a “She Said” styled treatment in “Boston Strangler,” a newspaper procedural about the dogged reporting that turned up clues and held an inept police department’s feet to the fire in an infamous case in the 1960s.
Well-cast, properly gloomy, with a serious bone to pick about Beantown’s “good ol’boys at the bar” sexism and chummy mediocrity, it’s a step-up for writer-director Matt Ruskin, whose “Crown Heights” had similar “attack the system” ambitions but fell short of the mark.
In the early ’60s, somebody is talking their way into homes, townhouses and apartments and strangling women with their panty hose. He’s leaving the hose tied “in a bow” as “a gift” for the cops.
“Did it look decorative?” asks Boston Record-American reporter Loretta McLaughlin, given a poker-faced flintiness by Keira Knightley. She’s a features reporter condemned to “women’s” society profiles and reviewing new toasters, but wants a job on the police beat.
Chris Cooper plays the crusty editor who won’t consider it, even when she shows up at his desk with clippings from her paper and a nearby town’s suggesting there’s a “phantom” strangler out there preying on women.
“Let me profile the victims,” she offers, “on my own time.”
She’s the one who hears about the panty hose bows, who makes the connection and confirms, to the outrage of reporters, editors and the police commissioner (Bill Camp), that there’s a serial killer preying on older women.
When the story blows up, brassy, seasoned pro Jean Cole (Carrie Coon of “Widows,” “The Post” and TV’s “Sin”) is partnered with her to report and write the stories that would define that now-closed newspaper in history as the one that owned the biggest local story of the day, the one that labeled the murderer “The Boston Strangler.”
Cole and McLaughlin run into sexism in the office and from the cops, resentful that two “skirts” are making them look bad.
Alessandro Nivola plays one detective who will swap info with McLaughlin as the story evolves from a manhunt to an expose about a police department and a city “that can’t protect its women.”
This “Strangler” isn’t “Zodiac.” It’s chilling and unsettling, but never terrifying in the relentless manner of David Fincher’s gripping masterpiece. And it’s considerably less cut-and-dried than the lurid 1968 thriller “The Boston Strangler” starring Oscar winner Jamie Lee Curtis’s dad as the killer. As newspaper sagas go, “Strangler” feels closer to the quixotic “We may never get the full story” tale told by “Kill the Messenger.”
Ruskin takes care to let us hear a first murder through apartment walls, another taking place in another room after the killer has talked his way in the door as a plumber/painter or whatever. We only see one of the gruesome crimes committed, in the flesh, one third of the way in.
The dimly-lit bars capture the city’s drinking scene. Ask if a cop’s on duty, and if he isn’t, ask “Where’s he drink?” The police commissioner comes into the editor’s office and is promptly handed a libation to lubricate his tirade at these “skirts” casting doubt on his uniforms and detectives.
The story is simplified in ways that rob another newspaper of the “scoop” that first alerted the city to the serial killer risk of a “mad strangler” loose in their streets. The Boston Sunday Herald broke that story. But as with “She Said,” the shoe leather reporting, threatening phone calls and genuine peril at the idea that one of these women will be alone with someone who might be a dangerous criminal feels authentic.
We’re given suspects, and if you’ve lost track of the state of the case in the decades that have passed since it was “solved,” with DNA evidence altering its conclusions, you will be as surprised as I was by the third act, which isn’t so much an epilogue as a “wait just a minute, here.”
The main achievements of this “Strangler” are to show improvement in Ruskin’s screen storytelling skills and to open the door to further dives — in documentary or re-enacted series form — into a case that transfixed the nation, became a movie and introduced the name of F. Lee Bailey into legal infamy, decades before the O.J. case tossed the last shovelfuls of dirt on his reputation.
Rating: R for some violent content and language.
Cast: Keira Knightley, Carrie Coon, Alessandro Nivola, David Dastmalchian, Bill Camp and Chris Cooper
Credits: Scripted and directed by Matt Ruskin. A 20th Century release on Hulu.
Running time: 1:52