Producers: Ridley Scott, Kevin J. Walsh, Michael Pruss, Josey McNamara and Tom Ackerley   Director: Matt Ruskin   Screenplay: Matt Ruskin   Cast: Keira Knightley, Carrie Coon, Alessandro Nivola, David Dastmalchian, Morgan Spector, Bill Camp, Chris Cooper, Robert John Burke, Rory Cochrane, Peter Gerety, Luke Kirby, Stephen Thorne, John Lee Ames, Therese Plaehn, Ryan Winkles and Greg Vrotsos   Distributor: Hulu

Grade: C+

When Richard Fleischer’s thriller “The Boston Strangler” was released in 1968, it presented the murder of thirteen women in the area of Beantown between 1962 and 1964 as solved.  Tony Curtis starred as Albert DeSalvo, who confessed to the killings, but since the confession could not be used in court because of a deal negotiated by his attorney (F. Lee Bailey), was convicted on other charges and sentenced to life in prison, where he was murdered in 1973.

Fleischer’s movie was criticized as sensationalistic at the same, and it certainly fiddled with the facts of the case as detailed in the 1966 book by Gerold Frank on which it was loosely based.  This new take on the case by writer-director Matt Ruskin could hardly be called sensationalistic; its mood is unrelievedly grim, solemn and understated.  Its major departure, however, is its revisionism.  Doubts about DeSalvo’s guilt have circulated since his arrest and conviction, and Ruskin seizes on them to construct a tale of conspiracy and greed that resulted in the imprisonment of a man who might not have been an innocent (it admits, in one of the closing captions, that 2013 DNA evidence indicates that DeSalvo was probably at the scene of the last of the murders), but was most likely not the perpetrator in all of them.

And as to heroes, here they’re not the Boston cops, most of whom are portrayed as corrupt, incompetent or simply apathetic under embattled Commissioner McNamara (Bill Camp), or the special state investigator John Bottomly, who was at the forefront Fleischer’s film (played by icon Henry Fonda) but is here relegated to a virtual walk-on (he’s played by Steve Routman), but the two female reporters who were instrumental in linking the murders and tracking down suspects.  In that respect the picture resembles Fleischer’s less that it does Maria Schrader’s “She Said,” about the Washington Post journalists whose work resulted in the downfall of Harvey Weinstein.

Unfortunately, it’s not the equal of that picture, because it lacks tension and excitement and ends with a highly speculative conclusion that strains for profundity it fails to reach.  But it does offer a credible portrait of the two women—neophyte Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) and veteran Jean Cole (Carrie Coon)—who struggled with the sexism of the day and the demands of their home lives (Morgan Spector plays Loretta’s supportive husband and Therese Plaehn her critical sister-in-law, while Stephen Thorne is Jean’s more distant spouse) to push the investigation forward despite initially halfhearted support from their editor Jack MacLaine (Chris Cooper) and strident opposition from the paper’s publisher Eddie Holland (Robert John Burke).  Both actresses do good work, with Knightley’s reserved but determined demeanor contrasting nicely with Coon’s brusque, extrovert manner.

McLaughlin is, however, able to build some rapport with a detective (Alessandro Nivola) disenchanted with the department, and gradually she and Jean identify some possible suspects—a boss who’s gotten his secretary pregnant; David Marsh (Ryan Winkles), a sinister young man with a vendetta against his ex-girlfriend; and DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian)—only to have each of them apparently cleared.  But in time the facts supposedly exonerating DeSalvo are swept away, and Bailey (Luke Kirby) works a deal for him to confess to all the murders, with the proviso that his admission cannot be used against him in court.

McLaughlin’s belief in his guilt will be shaken a few years later, however, when she’s contacted by a Michigan detective (Rory Cochrane) with information about a suspiciously similar series of killings in Ann Arbor, an episode Ruskin actually began the film with before flashing back to 1962 Boston.  That, along with deep dives into files of various kinds and an interview with a former inmate (Jon Lee Ames), leads Loretta to a startling conclusion about DeSalvo’s confession, one that involves Bailey and another of his clients, George Nassar (Greg Vrotsos), as well as some others to whom we’ve already been introduced—a conclusion underpinned by the general attitudes toward women at the time.

“Strangler” is drenched in a dark period atmosphere, courtesy of John P. Goldsmith’s production design, Arjun Bhasin’s costumes, and Ben Kutchins’ cinematography, the moody visuals accentuated by Ruskin’s stately pacing, Anne McCabe’s unhurried editing, and Paul Leonard-Morgan’s brooding score. 

All of that, along with the nicely complementary performances of Knightley and Coon and solid work from the supporting cast, make the film an intriguing take on the case. And yet like so many revisionist investigations of notorious crimes, it can offer no definitive closure—all one need do to confirm that is to look into the so-called Michigan Murders of 1967-69, which Ruskin assumes to be connected to the Boston killings; it’s far better at pointing out the deficiencies of the “accepted” solution than in constructing a persuasive alternative. 

In the end “Boston Strangler” is no more convincing than “The Boston Strangler,” though Ruskin’s discreet treatment of the violence makes it far less lurid than its predecessor, even though made more than half a century later.