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'Boston Strangler' doesn't know what it wants to say

Keira Knightley in 'Boston Strangler'
Keira Knightley in 'Boston Strangler'

Gene Siskel used to talk about whether a movie he was watching was more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch would be. A similar situation I’ve discovered is that if an obituary of your movie’s subject is more interesting than your movie, you might have a problem.

Boston Strangler is about Loretta McLaughlin, who broke the story of the serial killer in the 1960s. As we begin, McLaughlin is not taken terribly seriously by her employer, the Boston Record American newspaper, at least until she begins to connect the threads that show a recent set of murders may be related, and these connections become difficult to ignore.

But we end up having trouble focusing on exactly which story the movie wants to tell. Is this about the difficulty of a woman in an extremely male-dominated workplace? Sort of, but we have to fill in a whole lot of that ourselves. Is it a journalism movie? There’s journalism throughout, but that, too, is mostly surface level. And the movie also loses the thread on the investigation—as it all becomes more complicated, what we’re meant to pay attention to becomes more and more muddy.

And speaking of mud, this has to be one of the worst looking movies I can remember. The color palette is made up of varying shades of brownish-greenish-gray, and there’s a bizarre visual effect that often places the subject of any shot as the only thing in focus, with every other part of the frame blurred out, sort of like that setting you use on Zoom when you don’t want anyone to see the rest of the room, or like the actors were in front of a green screen the whole time. This was a deliberate decision, but I’m deeply confused as to why it was made.

Loretta McLaughlin led a fascinating life, also doing major reporting during the early days of the AIDS crisis and heavily criticizing the lack of government response. She’s more than worthy of a biopic, but for now we’ll have to wait for one with a clearer vision of what it wants to say.

Boston Strangler is on Hulu March 17th.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.