Hot on the Case...
It's been said that director David FincherStarting off as a music video director, David Fincher has gone on to become one of Hollywood's great, visionary directors with a cool, perfectionist style like none other. is a perfectionist, to a fault. He has a vision for each of his movies and he won't compromise it. If a shot doesn't look exactly the way he wants it, he'll use CGI in post to add trees, change the color of the sky, alter buildings, and do just about anything else necessary to match a place, time, or perspective. And when it comes to his actors, hell have them do shot after shot until they nail the dialogue and movements just the way he wants. This could be fifty takes, or more, which some have complained is just too much. "Do you really need to do that many takes? Can't perfectionism go too far?"
The answer, I would argue, is "no", not when the results are so good. If you needed to see just how a film like Fincher's would come together without his specific perfectionist vision, you need look no further than Boston Strangler, a HuluOriginally created as a joint streaming service between the major U.S. broadcast networks, Hulu has grown to be a solid alternative to the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime, even as it learns harder on its collection of shows from Fox and FX since Disney purchased a majority stake in the service. original that so very desperately wants to be like Fincher's film Zodiac, just without the talent behind the camera to make anything near as compelling of a film. It's not bad, but it's also not nearly as good as it could have been.
Based on the real investigation into the Boston Strangler -- a serial killer, or killers, who murdered 13 women in the Boston area between 1962 and 1964 and, just maybe, several more women over in Michigan some time later -- the film follows reporter Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley), who up until the murders begin is stuck on the lifestyle section of the newspaper, writing reviews of toasters. She wants to get on the crime beat but her editor, Jack MacLaine (Chris Cooper), doesn't think she's ready. When she stumbles onto a series of murders, all older women who are strangled and then presented with a silk stocking tied, in a bow, around their necks, she convinces Jack to let her follow the clues to see if there's a story. With three murders already having occurred, and a fourth soon after, it's pretty clear there's a story.
Jack pairs Loretta up with Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), a veteran reporter who worked her way up through the ranks over the years. Together they start digging into the case, reporting on every tidbit they turn up. Over time it becomes more than just a series of stories for Loretta, it becomes an obsession. She has to figure out who the murderer is, find a way to help the cops bring the killer to justice. But as the case evolves, and more suspects come up, Loretta slowly learns that finding true justice in a case like this is hard, especially who so little evidence is left behind. Is it one killer, is it multiple? And who could it really be? Loretta will throw everything she has at it to find the truth, no matter the cost.
In some ways it seems unfair to compare Boston Strangler and Zodiac because the cases, on their own, are superficially related. Both are true crime stories about obsessive reporters who blow up their own lives to find a killer, only (spoiler, I guess) a true killer is never really found. Both follow the cases from the very beginning to the end of the investigation when a possible answer is know, but never proven. Both really happened, and all that can be gleaned is that something like justice might have been served, in some way, because at least the killings stopped eventually.
And yet, at the same time, while watching the film I just couldn't help drawing comparisons between the films. It's not just the subject matter, it's the way the film handles everything. The shots, the story, the characters, they feel ripped from Zodiac in ways that aren't so superficial. It's like you could lay Zodiac over top of Boston Strangler and see where writer / director Matt Ruskin traced on from the other. Whether intended or not, there was a clear inspiration for this film. Someone really wanted to make their own Zodiac film.
The problem comes from the fact that we've already seen this film before, and it was done better and more artfully by Fincher. Someone, somewhere in the process should have said, "you know, this film doesn't feel all that original at all," and tried to help give this film a different vibe. A different timeline for the story to follow, or maybe a stronger framing device to give this film a different flow to the story. Hell, just a different color palette so that this film doesn't feel as dark and dreary as Zodiac would have helped. It worked for Fincher but it just makes this film look dull.
That's not to say that everything about this film is bad. I actually think the acting is pretty solid. Knightley does pretty good work as McLaughlin, even if there's still just a little too much of herself in her performance. There are moments -- a head tilt, a smile, or shrug -- that don't feel like the character and only feel like the actress. She doesn't get lost in the role, not really. Better is Carrie Coon as Cole. Coon absolutely gets into her role, wearing the character as a skin. It's not a meaty role, mind you, as Cole basically gets to follow McLaughlin around and play mentor from time to time, but Coon does make it work. Between them there's a decent core cast to hang the movie from.
The direction, though, is where things fall apart. There's no fluidity to the staging, no movement to the camera that really makes this film seems cinematic. It's a Hulu original, which is only slightly elevated from direct-to-DVD, sure, but the film is playing in the same territory as Zodiac. I can't help but expect more and this movie doesn't deliver. This film is perfectly average, a modestly made movie that handles its subject rather in a matter of fact manner. I's fine, not great. A movie like this needs to be great to stand out.
The comparisons may be unfair, but they can't be helped. There are great serial killer films already out there, many of which are made by Fincher. If you're going to play in the same pool as that director you have to bring it, really solidly, and Boston Strangler does not. It would have been better to make a different kind of movie about this, something that wasn't so structurally similar to Fincher's film. The comparisons do this movie absolutely no favors.