Directed by Matt Ruskin, Boston Strangler delves into the story of the mysterious killer that has become etched in the history books. Set in 1960s Boston, the film is the true story of Loretta McLaughlin (Kiera Knightley), a working mother trying to balance her family and her job as a lifestyle reporter. However, when a series of murders begin to shake the city, McLaughlin teams up with hard-nosed veteran Jean Cole (Carrie Coon) to break the case before more women are victimized.
Although true crime dramas have become popular on streaming services, what sets Strangler apart is its emphasis on the strong women who helped crack the mystery of the madman. Despite their incredible work, McLaughlin and Cole remain largely ignored by popular culture when the story of the Strangler is told. As such, when the opportunity arose to help reshape the history books, Ruskin, Knightley and Coon all jumped at the chance to bring their story to light.
“I grew up in Boston… and I had always heard about the Boston Strangler, but I really didn’t know anything about the case,” Ruskin begins. “Then, several years ago, I started reading all that I could and discovered this incredibly layered murder mystery that was full of twists and turns. In many ways, it was as much a story about the city at the time. So, I was just completely gripped by the case. And when I discovered these reporters, Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole, I found out that they were one of the first reporters to connect the murders. And they actually gave the Boston Strangler his name during the course of their reporting. I felt like that was a really compelling way to revisit this case.”
“Well, I think for me, I hadn’t heard of the Boston Strangler. I really didn’t know anything about it,” Knightley continues. “So, I really came to it from Matt’s wonderful script. I just thought it was a really interesting way of telling the story of a serial killer but through the point-of-view of these two female journalists. The fact that you’ve kinda got a case where most people didn’t know that it was two women who broke the story, that they’ve largely sort of been erased from the history of this case, I thought was really interesting.”
“Yes, that was the most shocking part of it for me, that these women were so integral to breaking the case and to forcing the police departments to share information,” says Coon. “Their names are never mentioned in association with it. That was really shocking to me. And then, their stories of how they became journalists, as individuals, they were very compelling, very moving stories. [Their lives] certainly echoed the lives of the women in my world who grew up in the Midwest. My mother was a nurse. One of my grandmothers was a teacher, and the other was a homemaker. And those were the opportunities available to women aside from secretary. So. Jean’s fight to become a journalist at all was very moving to me. And then, of course, I had seen Crown Heights, which Matt had made, and I think of him as a really, deeply moral filmmaker. And I knew that his interest in this story was feminist. You know? That he was really interested in revealing that those women had been erased from the story. And of course, I knew Keira was involved as well, and I was really excited to get the opportunity to work with her.”
Although the real McLaughlin and Cole has passed on, Knightley and Coon found themselves absolutely struck by their tenacity. Their ability to stand up in a male-dominated industry during a time of cultural fear was a powerful example to all women. In this way, Knightley found herself somewhat awestruck by her character’s real-life journey.
“I think she’s completely inspiring,” Knightley contends. “And I think partly, my answer is in the question, it was her tenacity that I found most inspiring, you know. I’ve been speaking to quite a few women who’ve seen the film, and this word keeps coming up which I find fascinating, which is it was “cathartic” to watch it. I think probably I experienced that. When I read it, all of the things that she came up against, whether it’s the male-dominated workplace or desperately trying to have a home life and a job and trying to raise children at the same point as trying to get justice for these women. You know, I think it’s something that a lot of women today can relate to. I think her tenacity, the fact that she was then and then became an award-winning journalist whose children clearly adored her, you know, I found that very inspiring. So, yeah, I think it was her tenacity that I loved.”
Interestingly, Strangler also sets itself apart from other true crime stories with its intent on not glorifying the killer. Instead, Ruskin believed that the best way to explore this story is to keep the emphasis on the women’s courage as opposed to the mind of a madman or brutal violence.
According to Ruskin, “A big piece of the film is about identity and who is this killer (or killers). So, it was important to leave that as this unknown, as this gray area. And I also, felt strongly about not depicting violence in a way that was gratuitous. So, much of the violence and attacks happen offscreen for that reason as well.”
“I think that’s part of why I felt compelled to make the film from… Loretta and Jean’s perspective, rather than what we’ve all seen, either from the perspective of the killer himself or from the sort of hard-boiled detective story. I felt like this was a really worthwhile way to revisit this series of horrific events.”
Similarly, Knightley also believes that the film speaks more to the power of strong women than the terror of its killer. To her, this particular retelling of the Strangler story has become a beautiful remembrance of their incredible contribution.
“Well, I think for me, this whole film is really a love song to female investigative journalists,” Knightley adds. “[It] really highlights how important it is to have women in position of power in storytelling because it was these two women that really went, ‘This is an important story. This is information that needs to be in the public in order to keep women of Boston safe.’ And I think, largely, it was a story that had been, at that point, ignored by the male establishment. I don’t know that their male colleagues would have seen the importance of it. So, I think it’s wonderful to be part of something that is really highlighting how important it is to have as many good female journalists as you possibly can for the safety of our communities.”
Because of the incredible work done by McLaughlin and Cole, Coon also feels that Ruskin’s film presents a deeper example of feminine solidarity that serves as an inspiration for women of this generation as well.
“I think there is a story built in that is about female ally-ship,” Coon suggests. “There’s the broader story that these were the women who warned the women of Boston that there was a danger to them. [They] cautioned them on how to protect themselves, which is not the story that we often tell. It’s often about, ‘Well, there’s only room for one, and we already have one, so we don’t need another one,’ for women in the workplace. I think that you do see in the film Jean’s perhaps conventional way of moving through that world be challenged by Loretta’s doggedness. Her willingness to create controversy… is something that I think Jean has avoided outside of the arenas that she’s investigating. So, I do think that what Matt has done, I think that thread is in the script, where you see Jean’s reality being complicated by the presence of Loretta, and probably speaks to why they were friends going forward for the rest of their lives.”
Boston Strangler is available on Disney+ on Friday, March 17th, 2023.