Arts movie review

An interview with Matt Ruskin on ‘Boston Strangler,’ an edge-of-the-seat thriller of recent times

A true-crime thriller that examines strangulation murders through the lens of investigative journalism

Boston Strangler
Directed by Matt Ruskin
Screenplay by Matt Ruskin
Starring Keira Knightley, Carrie Coon, Alessandro Nivola, Chris Cooper
Rated R, Now Streaming on Hulu

Boston Strangler, as the name suggests, revolves around the murders that took place in Boston in the early 1960’s. This true-crime thriller follows journalists Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) and Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), who start an investigation about these murders while working for the Record American newspaper. Loretta is the first journalist to connect the Strangler murders as she identifies that the victims were all murdered by strangulation after being raped and coins the name “Boston Strangler” to the murderer at large.

Despite being subjected to the rampant sexism prevalent at their workplace, Loretta and Jean continue their investigations into these murders. The “Boston Strangler” claims more victims, while Loretta and Jean face threats from unknown sources owing to their perseverant investigation. As the movie continues, we see how these journalists unravel the mystery of the Boston Strangler while tackling sexist superiors in their workplace and striving to balance their roles as parents in their personal lives.

 Boston Strangler pushes us to revisit a dark chapter of recent American history, and it is unsettling to know that the case of the Boston Strangler remains unsolved even today. In a college roundtable interview, director Matt Ruskin explained, “It has been more than six years from when I discovered the story of Loretta and Jean to getting to this point. I wasn’t looking to do a true story but when I discovered this story, I was really taken with it and thought it would be very compelling to revisit the Boston Strangler case.”

Talking about why he chose this particular story to tell, Ruskin recalled growing up in Boston and always hearing about the Strangler story, but not knowing anything about the details of the case. He continued, “After finishing up Crown Heights, I started reading all about the Boston Strangler and discovered an incredibly layered murder mystery at the heart of it.” Discussing how his movie compared to The Boston Strangler (1968) movie, Ruskin explained, “I love true crime, but I never set out to make a serial-killer movie. What attracted me was being able to tell the story of these journalists. The film for me was always about the identity of these women and the killers.” And indeed, Boston Strangler explores these murders through the lens of investigative journalism while also taking a dive into the personal lives of Loretta and Jean.

When asked about how he outlined the characterization of Loretta and Jean given the dearth of information about them, Ruskin elaborated, “In the process of finding out about them, I discovered that Jean’s granddaughter was an old friend of mine. I read Jean’s obituary which mentioned that she had two daughters, and I looked them up — just an amateur sleuthing on FaceBook. One of the daughters had a profile with one photo where she had her arm around my friend.” Ruskin then called up his friend, who introduced him to Loretta’s and Jean’s children. His conversations with them gave him a sense of who Loretta and Jean were as people and journalists, which was invaluable to his story writing. Furthermore, he got to know about their reporting through digitized accounts of the Record American newspaper.

Ruskin effortlessly champions the task of narrating the convoluted case of the Boston Strangler while also giving us a deeper dive into the lives of the journalists investigating the case, all in under two hours. When questioned about how he chose to tell this story, he recalled, “I honestly wish I was a better writer. So much of trying to condense a true story that spans several years into a feature film means that you really have to simplify, but also not oversimplify. The goal is to try and move the story forward while establishing who these characters are.”

Talking about the most challenging part of making this film, Ruskin said, “Given that it is a true story, when I was talking to Loretta’s and Jean’s kids, I felt an incredible obligation to be true to the spirit of who these women were, and still make an entertaining film. We also shot this period film in the middle of winter during the biggest COVID spike, which in itself was a crazy challenge.”

When asked about what impressed him the most regarding the film, Ruskin contemplated, “To write a scene and watch these incredible actors bring it to life was the most rewarding part of the process to me.” The performance of the cast is mind-blowing, to say the least, and Ruskin did a fantastic job of picking a cast tailor-made for the roles. There is a scene where Loretta goes to a potential Strangler’s house during her investigation and realizes that she needs to leave for her own safety. Thanks to Knightley’s vivid performance, I discovered that I was in fact getting tense and fidgety, muttering to myself, “Get out now!”

Boston Strangler is undoubtedly Ruskin’s most captivating thriller film to date. Not only does the movie engage you with its riveting screenplay, but it also leaves you pondering about societal issues of sexism and the safety of women.

The interview has been edited and cut for clarity and length.