After 13 women were murdered between 1962 and 1964 in the Boston area, writers and filmmakers found the subject too salacious to pass up on. Before the murders were even ‘solved,’ Victor Buono was cast as the serial killer in the 1964 film Boston Strangler. The revered William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride) had a book published that same year about the story, and in 1968, two films were released about the murders (No Way to Treat a Lady and The Boston Strangler). And that was about it, give or take a made-for-TV movie.
Six decades later, the case seemed ripe for reinvestigation in today’s true crime-saturated media climate. Filmmaker Matt Ruskin takes on the story with the new Hulu film, Boston Strangler, although he goes a different route than anyone else. Instead of focusing on the killer and depicting every crime in gruesome detail, the film delves into the story of two journalists who brought the truth to the masses and arguably did a better job at investigating it than any member of the police department.
The film stars Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon as Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole, respectively, two women who wrote for the Boston Record American and ran a four-part series of investigative reporting on the case, in which they gave the Boston Strangler his name and put together the disparate pieces of his crimes. Ruskin spoke with MovieWeb about Boston Strangler and the importance of its unique perspective.
Matt Ruskin Chases the Thrills of True Crime
Ruskin had directed several films, including Booster and The Hip Hop Project, before he gained more recognition and acclaim with the excellent 2017 film, Crown Heights. Starring Lakeith Stanfield, the film tells a true crime story that was previously documented in an excellent episode of the famed radio series, This American Life. Now, Ruskin is back with another great true crime tale, one which digs deeper into the past but retains the same commitment to character as his other work.
Make no mistake though — Ruskin is not limited to the genre. “I think it was a bit of a happy accident,” said the director. “I don’t exclusively look for that as a filmmaker. But I certainly love true stories, and a story like this I couldn’t make up if I tried to. And so, when I do get my hands on a really gripping true story, I think I’ll always chase it.” The tale of the Boston Strangler is undoubtedly a gripping one, so Ruskin couldn’t resist chasing it down.
“I had just finished a film, and I was looking for the next thing to write. I’d always heard about the Boston Strangler,” explained Ruskin. “I knew that nothing had been done for a long time and I started reading about the case, and I was just totally gripped by this really, really fascinating story with all these different suspects and different theories of the case, and a story that was as much about the sort of changing identity of the city at the time as well. So there were so many layers to it that I found interesting.” The angle and perspective which Ruskin assumes is wholly unique, though, resisting the usual tropes. Ruskin explained:
I thought this would make a great film, but telling the hard-boiled detective story just didn’t make sense for this as much because, in many ways, it’s questionable whether the Boston Police Department really got their guy or not. So it didn’t really click until I discovered these journalists, and in trying to find out information about them, I discovered that I actually have a personal connection to one of their families. And so I was able to make a real personal connection with them, and get a sense of who they were both as people as journalists.
Boston Strangler Tells the Story in a New Way
Ruskin’s distinct choice to film Boston Strangler through the lens of the two female journalists who broke the story is not just refreshing, but necessary; it’s almost like ‘revisionist true crime,’ the same way there are revisionist westerns. The previous depictions of this tale simply avoided this angle and went the more lurid route. “I’d seen The Boston Strangler film from the late ’60s, the Tony Curtis film. And having grown up in Boston, I had heard about the Boston Strangler my whole life, but I didn’t really know anything about the case. I started reading about it in researching for this film, and discovered this incredible murder mystery at the heart of the story.”
The result is an interesting blend of Zodiac and Hidden Figures with a lot of All the Presidents Men (which, was written by William Goldman, who also wrote the 1964 book about the Boston Strangler). It’s a gripping but patient look at the real journalists and their lives, and the way that this serial killer case is hardly open-and-shut. “What I didn’t know was that nobody was ever charged or convicted of any of the Boston Strangler murders. There’s this incredible gray area, and I don’t want to give anything away, but I found there to be all these really unexpected twists and turns to the story which had not yet been depicted on film, which is sort of outside the scope of the Tony Curtis film from the ’60s.” Ruskin continued:
I thought it would make a really compelling film, but I wasn’t really sure how to approach it until I discovered these reporters, Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole. They were among the first reporters to connect the murders; they really broke the story of the Boston Strangler. The more I learned about them, the more I grew to admire them as people. The challenges associated with being a woman in the newsroom in the early 1960s, much of that still exists today, but it was an even more male-dominated environment. I was just very inspired by their stories and the work they did as journalists, and I thought that telling the story, revisiting the Boston Strangler case through their perspective, would be really worthwhile.
Ruskin on Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon
By focusing on the journalists and not giving so much agency to the serial killer, Ruskin avoided many of the tropes which lead some people to accuse the true crime genre of glorifying violence and murderers. “I was very purposeful in not wanting to depict violence in a gratuitous way. One, out of principle, but two, because this is a true story and I wanted to be respectful of these victims,” explained Ruskin. “I think something that I learned in making this is that the things you don’t see can be as horrifying, if not more, as the things you do. And so we really used sound and other imagery to try and convey the horror of these crimes without doing something that was exploitative in any way.”
The downside of not exploring the more exploitive, violent, and salacious details of true crime is that it creates a void in the story which needs to be filled with something. Ruskin chose to put the journalists front and center, filling the void with their personalities, lives, and the personal nature of their investigation. Knightley and Coon are quietly excellent, guiding the film through every scene. “They’re just such incredibly talented actors, and they came so well-prepared, did a ton of their own research in addition to ingesting everything that I shared with them,” said Ruskin. “They really inhabited these characters, and I let them drive that process […] They made my life very easy on the day.”
Knightley and Coon go above and beyond in depicting two women with similar passions and lives, but extremely different backgrounds and personalities. “That was one of the aspects of the story that we all really loved, was that Keira and Carrie’s characters, Jean and Loretta really approached their work in very different ways. Because they had a very different background,” said Ruskin. “Loretta studied journalism at Boston University, unlike Jean Cole, who started working in a newsroom right out of high school when she was 18 years old. She started out as a copy boy, which is basically an assistant, and they both had to fight for every scrap that they got, but they came up with very different trajectories. And I think some of that was reflected in how they approach their work.” Ruskin elaborated:
So they both ran with that and really brought that kind of difference of background to life, and I think in a way that was really effective. I love journalism films, and I really respect and admire good journalists and good journalism. I think it’s, unfortunately, as important and as relevant today as it’s ever been, the need for reliable reporting and institutions that are committed to the truth. So I think there’s a thread there that’s just as relevant today as ever.
Even though it’s been six decades, it’s true — Boston Strangler is deeply connected with the current moment, and thrillingly so. Produced by 20th Century Studios, Scott Free Productions, and LuckyChap Entertainment, Boston Strangler will be available on Hulu beginning March 17.