These days, it seems like just about every American serial killer has gotten a film or series about their gruesome murders and the work it took to unveil them as the perpetrators. In theory, Hulu’s eponymous “Boston Strangler” is no different, following the work of two female investigative journalists on the case of the Boston Strangler. In practice, “Boston Strangler” is an enjoyable, atmospheric rendition of two women’s pursuit to discover the identity of the serial killer against the many, often sexist obstacles in their way.
Inspired by true events, reporter Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) desperately wishes to break free from the lifestyle beat, and finds her opportunity in a recent string of murders. McLaughlin incites rage from local law enforcement as her work details the connections between the victims, suggesting the murders are the work of a serial killer. The project is under threat of being axed until another victim is discovered, and McLaughlin is paired with experienced investigative reporter Jean Cole (Carrie Coon) to pursue the story. As the two women work tirelessly to uncover the truth, the greatest obstacles prove not to be the mystery itself but the people and sexist systems around them.
While taking place in the 1960s, the demeaning and sexist attitudes the women encounter still ring true for women in the workplace today. Whether it is being denied the same opportunities as male coworkers or being falsely accused of using feminine sensuality as a tool of coercion, “Boston Strangler” is a tragic reminder of how little the treatment of women in the workplace has changed despite decades passing.
In spite of the obstacles they face, McLaughlin and Cole are a dynamic duo, and Knightley and Coon do an incredible job bringing not only their dedication to life, but the many conflicting emotions the two reporters experience as the consequences of their coverage creep up on them. Whether it’s Cole having an outburst at the office over them potentially being killed or McLaughlin’s increasingly strained marriage, Coon and Knightley are a marvel together and apart.
With a deeply dreary look, the film’s moody lighting both works for and against it. On one hand, some scenes — though not all — are simply too dim (part of a larger trend in recent films and shows with scenes too dark for the average viewer to see). On the other hand, “Boston Strangler” creates an enticing atmosphere matching the elusive mystery McLaughlin and Cole are trying to unravel. It’s a double-edged sword, but it more or less works in the film’s favor.
Although, as the demand for true crime content continues to increase, “Boston Strangler” is a breath of fresh air in the respect it grants the victims. Many films relish in drawing out gruesome reenactions of real murders, or even up the ante to satisfy the fetishistic desires of some of its audience. But “Boston Strangler” often cuts away from the murders, panning elsewhere in the scene and leaving only audio cues about what is happening. The scenes are long enough to establish a sense of terror, but brief enough to never feel voyeuristic. In its empathy alone, “Boston Strangler” is a cut above the rest — even if it lacks the grisly grip that horror aficionados often demand.
However, it becomes clear why the film is simply inspired by true events and not based on them. As a condensation of the case, the film cuts corners and changes details seemingly to create a more concise, enthralling narrative. With the final act veering heavily into the conspiratorial, speculative side of the investigation, “Boston Strangler” emerges as a historically inaccurate, if entertaining, rendition of McLaughlin and Cole’s investigation.
While “Boston Strangler” may not be an outstanding, accurate entry in the true crime genre, it is empathetic and enthralling. Viewers may not revisit the film after an initial viewing, but the 112 minutes spent watching it will certainly be a worthwhile foray into the latest major entry in the true crime genre.