No filmmaker has influenced the serial killer subgenre more than David Fincher. Fincher’s moody “Seven” resulted in Hollywood churning out a string of darker-than-dark serial killer thrillers in the ’90s. But it’s Fincher’s “Zodiac” that serves as the springboard for “Boston Strangler.” Indeed, for a large chunk of the proceedings, “Boston Strangler” feels like the Lite Beer version of “Zodiac.” There’s even a scene that’s a blatant rip-off of a much better “Zodiac” moment, where Jake Gyllenhaal’s character finds himself in a creepy, dimly lit basement with someone who may or may not be the killer. You get the sense that writer-director Ruskin watched “Zodiac” a lot before sitting down to pen this film. Like the far superior “Zodiac,” this isn’t so much about the murders as it is about the obsessions of people examining the murders.
It’s the 1960s, and Loretta McLaughlin is a reporter for the Boston Record American (get used to that newspaper name; Loretta says it over and over again whenever she introduces herself). As played by Keira Knightley, Loretta is both a family woman and a hard-driven career gal who really wants to write serious stories. Unfortunately, because she’s only a woman (gasp!), she’s stuck on the lifestyle desk writing reviews of toasters.
But Loretta isn’t content to just sit back and eat toast — she’s been doing her own digging and begins to think she’s got the scoop on a big, big story: there’s a killer out there stalking women in Boston (the term “serial killer” was not coined at the time of the events, but that’s what we have here). The killer somehow works his way into the homes of women — usually older women — and brutally strangles them to death. It’s disturbing stuff, but it seems like only Lorretta can tell the killings are related. In fact, when she finally convinces her editor (Chris Cooper) to write about the killings, the local cops immediately disown the story and claim it’s not true. But it is true (… or is it?), and soon Loretta is teamed up with another female journalist, the tough-talking, take-no-b.s. Jean Cole (Carrie Coon). Loretta resents having to work with someone at first, but soon, the two reporters are putting their heads together to crack the case.