Movies about process intrigue me, especially if they involve newspapers and beat reporters chasing down a story. With that in mind, I may have liked “Boston Strangler” more than you will. There are numerous scenes of real-life Boston Record American reporters Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) and Jean Cole (Carrie Coon) interviewing people, poring over documents and arguing with their boss, Chris Cooper’s Jack MacLaine.
This is the stuff I enjoy, solely based on some romantic notion I’ve always had about the newspaper business. A colleague who has far more journalistic experience than I do described this film as “wicked boring.” Sensing that you may also come to that conclusion, writer-director Matt Ruskin throws in several reenactments that show either the Boston Strangler at work or gruesome postmortem photos of the victims.
In my short time here, I’ve discovered that Bostonians are very proud of their town; they love to see it onscreen and to read about it. The recreation of 1960s Boston in “Boston Strangler” will appeal to those who lived through that era or wish to compare then and now. Cinematographer Ben Kutchins captures the paranoid feel of a thriller made back then, which adds to the overall mise-en-scène. As a result, you feel transported.
When Ruskin was on “Boston Public Radio” recently, he discussed how many of the neighborhoods where his film takes place were visually not too far removed from their original look. By changing the cars to reflect the period, he throws the viewer back in time. This level of realism extends to the film’s interiors: the kitchen where McLaughlin argues with her husband, James (Morgan Spector), and the bars where she guzzles booze and swaps information with Cole and Detective Conley (Alessandro Nivola) feel accurately depicted.
Conley is one of several side characters McLaughlin and Cole interact with during their investigation. He’s the one cop who will talk to them after they expose, in print, how little the Boston PD is doing to catch a killer who, by this point in “Boston Strangler,” has murdered five women. Other supporting characters include Daniel (Ryan Winkles), a creepy stalker ex-boyfriend of one of the victims, and Albert DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian), a rapist with a long rap sheet.
That last name may ring a bell, especially if you’ve seen the 1968 Tony Curtis movie, “The Boston Strangler” or have a cursory knowledge of this case. DeSalvo confessed to the killings, though he was never actually charged with those crimes. In 2013, a DNA match was made between DeSalvo and the murder of Mary Sullivan, and he is now believed to have murdered at least 11 women in the Boston area in the early 1960s. This film questions whether DeSalvo acted alone or was assisted by other people.
Had “Boston Strangler” followed the investigation-heavy path of prior films like “Spotlight” (2015) and last year’s “She Said,” it might have worked better. It also might have turned off the audience; perhaps anticipating that, Ruskin often resorts to horror-movie tactics. At one point, the film depicts McLaughlin’s visit to a potential suspect’s apartment as if she were entering Freddy Krueger’s boiler room in “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” The murders themselves, though brief and absent the most graphic of details, are staged like scenes in a slasher movie.
When “Boston Strangler” focuses on the two journalists who wrote about this case, it is quite involving. We see how difficult it is for women to be taken seriously in a newsroom predominantly occupied by men. McLaughlin is assigned an article about testing the latest toaster, for example. So, when she finds a pattern in the first few killings, she has to fight to be taken seriously.
As for the performances, Knightley is good, but Coon is really good. As the “rookie” and the cynical veteran, respectively, the two actors elevate the familiar tropes. They add a fresh coat of paint to a dynamic we’ve seen many times.
Movies about real-life serial killers tend to be distasteful at best, exploitative at worst. “Boston Strangler” throws the catch-all phrase “based on a true story” at the top of the film, leaving us to question what is and isn’t accurate.
As luck would have it, I followed Ruskin on WGBH that day. Sitting in the green room, I heard “BPR” co-host Jim Braude ask the director what he meant by “inspired by a true story,” a phrase readers know irritates me to no end. “Invariably you have to take liberties,” Ruskin replied, “just to try to tell a story that spans several years into, you know, the format of a feature film.”
If “Boston Strangler” wants us to buy its multiple-killer theory, it would help if we could trust this movie enough to believe what we’re being sold.
Written and directed by Matt Ruskin. Starring Keira Knightley, Carrie Coon, Chris Cooper, Ryan Winkles, David Dastmalchian, Morgan Spector, Alessandro Nivola. On Hulu. 112 minutes. R (language, violence, graphic crime photos)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.