It’s perhaps appropriate that Matt Ruskin’s take on the infamous story of the serial killer that prowled the streets of Boston should come out shortly after International Women’s Day. After all, it tells the story of the notorious woman killer from the perspective of two determined female journalists, who struggle to be taken seriously in the male-dominated society of 1960s America.
It’s perhaps equally fitting that the film shouldn’t come out on International Women’s Day, however. The day has begun to attract a backlash from many feminists as a day more associated with PR fluff and tokenism than women’s rights, and the struggles faced by reporter Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) and later Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), who joins her on the case as its profile grows, are struggles that are still experienced today by women throughout the other 364 days of the year.
McLaughlin is not only faced with a police force that considers the murders of several women a fairly low priority, but a husband and in-laws who ultimately think she would be better placed at home raising her family, as well as an editor who thinks a woman’s place is reviewing toasters. She and Cole fight an uphill battle to make their voices heard as the dead bodies pile up and the authorities refuse to link the cases, or do much about them at all.
It’s a refreshing approach to see the well-worn "brutal woman-killer" story told through the eyes of an initially peripheral and, more importantly, female character who ultimately becomes central to the case, yet to this day has never been recognised for her work. Ruskin’s approach to the film fits the story perfectly.
There are no jump scares or grisly murders here — in fact, we barely see anything of the slayings that we might expect to be central to the movie. Instead, the director opts for a decidedly slow pace to his film, and in this case, that’s not a criticism.
The leisurely denouement perfectly mirrors the mundane home life of a woman juggling her career with raising three small children. In the places where the pace does pick up, it’s often thanks to an almost mocking tone from the film’s male leads, such as when the intrepid reporters are pressured into a photo shoot with their fan mail for a spread on how popular “the girls” are becoming.
The film doesn’t quite offer any resolution — to this day, the identity of the Strangler remains an unsettled issue, as does the issue of gender inequality. Many women today face the same challenges in the workplace, such as wage disparity, and are yet to be treated equally.
The Strangler, meanwhile, remains an enduring mystery. Former soldier Albert DeSalvo confessed to all 13 murders, but thanks to a deal struck by his lawyer, the confession was inadmissible in court and he was instead imprisoned in 1967 for earlier offences. He was murdered in prison in 1973, having by that time already recanted his confession.
McLaughlin herself unearthed the recordings of his confessions, which raised serious questions about their veracity. He did not know what many of the victims were wearing or the layout of their homes, and instead seemed to be guided to the right answers by his interrogators.
In 2013, DNA evidence did, at last, link him to one of the murders, but the other 12 remain unsolved. McLaughlin's investigations, among others, suggest there may have been several stranglers, including criminals DeSalvo may have colluded with inside during what was already a prolific criminal career.
The languid pace and lack of finality could turn off those looking for a traditional serial killer romp, but for a thoughtful period piece, with central themes are as relevant in 2023 as they were in 1963, this is good-value weekend viewing.
Boston Strangler will be released on on Disney+ on Friday