For its producers, “Boston Strangler” arrives at what arguably is an opportune time, when content based on true crime is hot.
Although the Boston Strangler murders occurred about 50 years ago, the murky story of who exactly killed several unmarried women in and around the Massachusetts city — and why — remains a fascinating if also gruesome subject.
One of the stronger 20th Century Studios films going straight to Hulu, where it debuts this week, “Boston Strangler” revisits the saga from the point of view of one of two women who covered the killings for the city’s Record-American newspaper. And so while it is, in fact, another serving of true-crime-based fare, it also very much is a journalism movie — one highly interested in exploring the sexism faced by women journalists of the era. (Expect to hear derisive phrases such as “girl reporters” tossed around by male characters.)
Written and directed by Matt Ruskin, “Boston Strangler” begins with a murder in 1965 in Ann Arbor, Mich. As with the deaths that follow — taking place only a few years earlier in Massachusetts — Ruskin isn’t interested in glorifying the acts by portraying them with the frame, but he lets us hear them, which is horrifying enough.
In Boston in 1962, Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley), a married mother of three, is languishing on the lifestyle desk at the Record American. She wants to cover hard news, but her editor, Jack MacLaine (Chris Cooper, “Adaptation”), isn’t interested. Understandably, Loretta is envious of a female colleague, Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), who writes investigative pieces for the publication.
The dogged Loretta finally convinces Jack to allow her to write a profile of four recent murder victims — and only after she offers to do the work on her own time. After additional similar murders are discovered, however, she’s on the story, as is Jean.
With the possible exception of her deciding, understandably, not to follow a person of interest deep into his apartment, we see fearless reporting by Loretta as she seeks out suspects and cultivates police sources such as Jim Conley (Alessandro Nivola, “The Many Saints of Newark”), a homicide detective working the case.
Even though the story is told from her perspective, it’s disappointing that Loretta is the only character to see any real development in the hands of Ruskin, who earned kudos for his 2017 drama, “Crown Heights.” We see the strain the job begins to put on her marriage to the previously supportive James (Morgan Spector), and we witness her growth as a news reporter, even though she’s pretty strong in that area as soon as she gets her shot.
She and Jean don’t just face discrimination in the field and from readers but also from colleagues and supervisors, although Jack has a habit of eventually doing right by them.
Given the talent Coon has shown in television series including “The Leftovers” and “The Gilded Age” (in which she shares myriads scenes with likewise enjoyable Spector), it’s simply a bummer Jean isn’t fleshed out a bit more. However, Knightly (“The Imitation Game,” “Atonement”) is more than up for the task of carrying the affair.
It isn’t Knightley’s fault but, instead, Ruskin’s that “Boston Strangler” loses a little too much steam in the middle of the affair, as the investigation begins to focus on one now-infamous man (David Dastmalchian, “Dune”). The film largely, but not completely, reestablishes its momentum after the mystery grows more complex as time passes.
Plus, there’s a lot to like here from the anything-but-flashy filmmaking side, from the grainy look and soft lighting to the aforementioned handling of the story’s requisite violence. Along with hearing the slayings, we hear plenty about them, and that’s enough.
“Boston Stranger” is smart and, perhaps to a fault, measured and steady.
If it doesn’t sound sensationalistic enough to you, there is plenty of murder-filled fare out there.
Run time: 112 minutes
Stars (of four): 2.5.
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