Boston Strangler review – Keira Knightley serial-killer story tells fierce tale | Film

Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon do their professional best with this stolid and inhibited TV-movie-style trudge through a gruesome true-crime story: the Boston Strangler, the US serial killer to whom police and press attributed 13 murders of women in Boston during the early 1960s. A confession for all 13 was secured from one Albert DeSalvo, but with forensic evidence linking him to only the last victim. Just four years after DeSalvo conviction, Tony Curtis famously went against his dreamboat image by playing him in a brassy film with Henry Fonda as the detective on his trail.

This version tries getting to grips with the possibility of multiple culprits and that the Boston Strangler was in fact a misogynist hivemind phenomenon. It moreover tells the story of the women whose role has almost been forgotten: two tough, resourceful journalists, Loretta McLaughlin (Knightley) and Jean Cole (Coon), who first christened the killer “The Boston Strangler” and whose fiercely persistent reporting for the Record American (a paper later merged into the Boston Herald) forced the cops and city hall to take notice.

Traditionally, the lurid and lipsmacking behaviour of the media is thought of as part of the overall sexist problem, but this film argues that without the women’s diagnosis of a serial-killer MO, without their sensational headlines, the lackadaisical male authorities would have shrugged at what seemed to them sordid and unconnected homicides and so the clear and present danger to Boston’s women would have been ignored.

Fair enough. But there is so little dramatic excitement to any of this. Where is the tension? Where is the suspense? Where is the macabre horror? A director like Jonathan Demme or David Fincher would have gone for the jugular on this kind of material, but writer-director Matt Ruskin seems a little squeamish and keeps everything on the right side of contemporary taste. The chill of fear is missing.

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Boston Strangler is released on 17 March on Disney+.

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