It’s not often that a film about a notorious serial killer has a woman at the centre. Boston Strangler is less about the man invoked in the title than about the woman who came up with the description for him.

In 1962, Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) is stuck on the lifestyle beat at the Boston Record American newspaper, where her job includes writing product reviews of toasters. Despite six crime reporters – all men – only Loretta makes the connection between a series of seemingly unconnected murders.

The victims are elderly, and each of them has been strangled with stockings. Permitted to report on the case by her sceptical editor Jack (Chris Cooper), Loretta begins a perilous journey that spans 13 murders all the way until 1964. Very soon, Boston Record American appears to have greater insight into the case than the police.

Boston Strangler (2023).

Boston Strangler, which is out on Disney+ Hotstar, is designed as a rigour-led corrective to the never-ending supply of sensational movies and series about serial killers. Matt Ruskin’s film is also among a slew of recent productions that seek to reclaim the unheralded contributions of women to important events.

From A Call to Spy (starring Radhika Apte as Indian-origin British espionage agent Noor Inayat Khan) to Gaslit (about the woman who blew the whistle on the American political scandal Watergate) and She Said (about the New York Times reporters who helped expose Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behaviour), Hollywood has been excavating the achievements of women dismissed as bit players or bystanders.

Before Loretta goes down the rabbit hole of the investigation into the killings, she must overcome sexism at work and home. Her initially supportive husband runs out of patience as the corpses keep piling up. Phone calls at odd hours take Loretta away from her domestic responsibilities.

Loretta ventures into places where women don’t usually go. She stacks up so much information that she’s the one feeding leads to Boston police investigator Conley (Alessandro Nivola), rather than the other way round.

Boston Strangler (2023).

The 112-minute film is an honourable exercise, with Ruskin’s screenplay especially attuned to Loretta’s ferocious tenacity. Dressed in sensible clothes (the costumes are by Arjun Bhasin) and expressing steely-jawed determination at all times, Loretta is both model reporter and feminist heroine.

There are actually two women involved in the investigation. Loretta shares bylines with Jean Cole (Carrie Coon). Older and wiser about the ways of the Boston police, Jean sometimes gets the breaks that Loretta is unable to.

The period detail is both familiar and comforting – noisy typewriters, newsrooms where alcohol flows during the day, smoke-filled pubs where journalists hang out after hours. We get some sense of what it must have been like to be a lone woman in a crowd of men, trying to do meaningful work in the face of undisguised contempt. Loretta is described as a “skirt” at one point. Jean and Loretta are nearly always called “girl reporters”.

But as Loretta’s investigation gets more complicated, with conflicting leads and several possible candidates as the murderer, the film’s narrative grip gets weaker as well as less curious. The theory advanced about the perpetrator’s identity towards the end suggests a far more complex narrative about the media’s contributions to serial killer lore than the movie is equipped to process.

There is something un-Hollywood about focusing on the women, rather than the men – and Keira Knightley is impressive as the monomaniacal Loretta, who sacrifices a great deal for her efforts. But in its mission to celebrate Loretta McLaughlin, the movie downplays Jean Cole’s contributions as well as ignores her own potentially fascinating backstory.

We rarely learn what it must have been like for Jean to have created the path on which Loretta later walks. Our first, memorable sighting of Jean is of her dressed as a nurse – she has been involved in an undercover investigation into nursing homes. Carrie Coon is superb too as the seasoned reporter who has experienced everything thrown at Loretta and has yet emerged unfazed and undefeated.

In a film that looks for the woman in the serial killer story, only one woman gets to stand on the pedestal. The other equally interesting, if not more interesting character, is downplayed to ensure a Hollywood ending.

Carrie Coon in Boston Strangler (2023).