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'Boston Strangler' review: A bitter true crime drama

Courtesy of Hulu/20th Century Studios


Watching “Boston Strangler,” an earnest but surface level made-for-streaming thriller, it was astounding to me that a David Fincher (or someone of that caliber) had never taken a stab at adapting one of the most prolific serial killers of the last 70 years for the big screen (although the Tony Curtis led film has its followers). In another universe, this would be a prestige drama and a major box office grosser with serious award consideration. It would also get into the meat and potatoes of the Strangler’s story, who the police and press suggested was responsible for around 13 murders within the Boston area circa 1960. Instead, “Boston Strangler” is a scatterbrained recollection that’s reminiscent of a Wikipedia synopsis and it undervalues the lengths and courage it took from its main subjects (played here by Keira Knightly and Carrie Coon) to crack the case and, in the process, put their families at risk. 

No such stakes or tension exists in writer-director Matt Ruskin’s surface level entry into the true crime space. This version never has a grip or understanding on the matter at large, wasting a talented ensemble (rounded out by Chris Cooper, Alessandro Nivola, and David Dastmalchian) and scurrying through the materials at rapid pace. It’s probably one of those rare instances where a limited series approach might’ve done wonders. Knightly and Coon are fine playing the two hardened investigative journalists, whose perseverance working for the Record American (a paper that would later become the Boston Herald) forced the police and local city officials to keep watch, but even they seem bored. 

There is something refreshing about watching a pair of strong female leads put the sluggish men in their place (including the mayor who is played briefly by the great Bill Camp), because if not for them, who knows the reign that could've been imposed by the culprit. For once, it’s the women who are heard and that’s worth celebrating. If only Ruskin had expanded more on their contributions and the inherent danger that came with the job. The movie briefly hints at this when Knightly’s character receives a phone call with only the faint sound of heavy breathing on the other end, but it’s a minor sequence that’s brushed aside as the reporters try connecting the dots on the killer’s next move. 

In other words, “Boston Strangler” plays it safe, pigeonholing awkward marriage subplots and love triangles into the movie that takes away from the grittiness of the crimes. Had the film fallen into more capable hands, “Boston Strangler'' could've been a grimy, no holds barred thriller unafraid of getting some blood on its hands. Alas, its TV movie aesthetic will suit it well and audiences at home might appreciate that, but you can’t help but think, in the true crime renaissance, there was so much potential left on the table. 


Grade: D+ 

BOSTON STRANGLER debuts on Hulu Friday, March 17th. 


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