“But where is his outrage?” sputters Toni Collette as the exhausted and fed up Detective. Grace Rasmussen in the Netflix series Unbelievable. She’s just stormed out of a meeting with a dispassionate FBI agent months into the sprawling investigation into a series of sexual assaults. She can’t tolerate the repetition of the exercise any longer, the meticulous work required to catch one guy in a sea of bad guys, the plugging of holes in a dam long since burst. She knows the real solution is a societal change so profound it’s unlikely to ever come, and in the meantime all she can do is sift through individual cases and seethe.
Much has been made about the popularity of true crime, the sifting aficionados do for cases that are particularly entertaining or cathartic and the hand wringing over whether it’s a healthy or detrimental exercise. Unbelievable has something very specific to say about the gap between how we imagine these cases and how they actually play out. Such a potent reason justifies its existence. It’s the less focused and sensationalized varieties that spur concern, and with yet another take on an infamous and well-trod case, the question of why these crimes should be unearthed must be answered again.
Boston Strangler examines the infamous murders of single women in 1960s Boston, all of whom were strangled and most of whom were sexually assaulted. Like Unbelievable and so many before it, the film uses investigation as its entry point, this time focusing on two female reporters who broke the story for the Boston Record American newspaper. Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) was an ambitious upshot, paired against her will with Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), a wily veteran reporter.
The structure of the movie is somehow even more familiar than the case, with every revelation and setback coming as predictably as the character’s meticulous and luxurious cigarette drags. Journalists in the ‘60s have to smoke, you see, just as surely as the complicated case twists and drags until Loretta and Jean receive crushing professional and personal pushback for being women working such a demanding story.
Both Knightley and Coon can handle themes of sexism and underestimation in their sleep, and the perfunctory plot gives them little to do but sleepwalk. Knightley bristles satisfactorily when relatives try to push Loretta into traditional roles at home, but there’s hardly a whiff of the passion she’s brought to so many period women who dream of different rules. Coon maintains a tougher exterior that keeps Jean at a distance, but again, if you’re wanting a woman who steamrolls in order to hide vulnerability, Coon’s done it with more nuance elsewhere.
In the absence of a single unique idea, Boston Strangler leans heavily on style, as if the ‘60s is ancient enough to be transportive. Credit must be given to everyone who soaked the film in precise period trappings without losing the dour, noir vibes writer/director Matt Ruskin clearly wanted. The film is successful at being immersive, but it does so by replicating influences so ubiquitous it’s hard to pin down what Ruskin thought this story told in this way would bring to the table.
Which leaves us with the question at hand. Why are we dragging out these murdered women yet again, and why should we invite their ghosts into our homes?
“Most of the TV shows that would cover these stories were very cold or really kind of exploitative,” says Karen Kilgariff in the HBO series I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. The series and the book on which it’s based argue that we must grasp at reality instead of these staid representations, and in doing so they offer the most clear-eyed encapsulation of why we don’t let these women die. If a movie comes along and fails to incorporate these observations and critiques into its DNA, it will inevitably feel like a relic.
Boston Strangler is precisely the kind of media Kilgariff described as cold, one whose immense effort goes toward the tired staples of period recreation and carefully laid out plot beats instead of contending with reality. The best of the genre, like I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and Unbelievable, wrestle with the jagged and messy ramifications of life, something that’s impossible to be exacting or cold about. Raskin’s overly manicured movie never comes close to understanding this, and hence it never gives in to the emotion that envelopes a true dive into the abyss of these cases.
Thirteen women die in this movie because thirteen women died in real life, and two women slog through apathy because apathy is too often what these crimes receive. Where is the outrage, indeed.
Release: available now on Hulu
Director: Matt Ruskin
Writers: Matt Ruskin
Cast: Keira Knightley, Carrie Coon, Chris Cooper, Alessandro Nivola, David Dastmalchian