In creating Boston Strangler, writer and director Matt Ruskin, a native of Watertown, Mass., didn’t set out to make a film about a real-life serial killer in Boston. The story of the two female journalists who broke the story, Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole, found him instead.
“I wasn’t looking to do a true story, but when I discovered Loretta and Jean’s story I was really taken with it, and I thought it’d be a really compelling way to revisit the Boston Strangler case,” Ruskin said.
Boston Strangler, which will be released on Hulu on March 17, is not intended to be a serial killer movie, but rather a celebration of good journalism, Ruskin said at a roundtable panel with The Heights and other Boston-area student newspapers on March 13.
“I really respect and admire good journalists and good journalism,” Ruskin said. “And I think, now as much as ever with all of the misinformation and the sort of entertainment news on cable, that having journalists and institutions that are committed to the truth … is important as ever, and so that’s a thread in the film that I felt was as relevant today as it’s ever been.”
The film centers around McLaughlin (Keira Knightley), a journalist for Record American, a Boston newspaper in the early 1960s. In the film, McLaughlin feels that many of the stories she has been writing do not engage her full talent. She then notices a connection between a number of strangling murders that have occurred within Boston over the past few weeks.
McLaughlin brings her story to her editor Jack MacLaine (Chris Cooper), and he gives her permission to work on a story that seeks to find a connection between the three murders. When the paper faces pushback from the Boston Police Department, MacLaine decides to pair McLaughlin with Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), a more experienced crime reporter. The two women continue to investigate the murders and coin the killer’s name—the Boston Strangler.
Though they face various antagonistic forces in their pursuit to find the killer, including the police and their own families, both McLaughlin and Cole prove their commitment to journalism by faithfully seeking to find the truth.
Ruskin said he was drawn to the uniqueness and surprising elements of McLaughlin and Cole’s story. He spoke of Loretta’s trailblazing reporting in a male-dominated newsroom in the ’60s. Loretta and Jean both also had incredible support systems, including both of their editors and Loretta’s husband, that truly believed in them as reporters, according to Ruskin.
Boston Strangler’s storytelling is incredibly strong. The film does not get bogged down in long sequences of background information, nor does it spend a long time setting up the story, which Ruskin explained was a challenge.
“I found that so much of trying to condense a true story that spans several years into the shape of a feature film [is figuring out how to] simplify, and the goal is to not oversimplify,” Ruskin said.
The narrative structure of the film is a major part of this storytelling. The film opens with a grisly murder scene that takes place in Ann Arbor, Mich. in 1965, and then moves back in time to Loretta in Boston in 1962. Boston Strangler’s quick pace keeps the story interesting. It is not difficult to follow the intricacies of the case when they are being presented without over-explanation or overwhelming amounts of detail.
There is plenty of detail present in the film, however. Like any good murder mystery, the audience must be engaged and attentive to not only what the characters say and do, but also to what words are shown on a page or what makes up the setting of a particular scene. McLaughlin’s conversations with Detective Conley (Alessandro Nivola) of the Boston Police Department, for example, break up the newsroom scenes while offering a more conversational look at the evidence and facts of the case.
The coloring of the film, in particular, helps to set the mood and convey the feelings of the people of Boston during such a traumatic time. Ruskin said the crew added warmer tones to the scenes in home environments and neutral tones in the newsroom. The cooler tones in the crime scenes have an added effect, according to Ruskin.
“[The lighting allows the audience to] kind of feel the gravity of these murders kind of hanging over every moment of the film, even some of the lighter moments,” Ruskin said.
The different styles and the variety of shots used in the scenes also contribute to the quality of the film. One specific scene that stands out is when Loretta is discussing the connection between the first three victims. While Loretta talks, the screen is filled with succeeding images of the back of each woman’s head. Each head turns around and looks directly into the camera as if she is looking into the viewer’s eyes. This scene—though short—emphasizes the humanity of the victims and the horror of the crimes beyond their sensational nature.
Beyond all of these technically impressive features of the movie, it is the actors who really enhance the story of the film, according to Ruskin.
“The thing that I’m still, like, pinching myself over is just the incredible actors who agreed to do the movie … to watch these great actors bring it to life and make it better…was the most rewarding part of it for me,” Ruskin said. “To just see people who I think are so much more talented than me bring this thing to life. That was really exceptional.”