Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Collier Landry was only eleven years old when his mother Noreen disappeared in December 1989. Less than a month later her body was discovered in a shallow grave under the concrete floor of the family’s basement and his father, Dr. John Boyle, was arrested for her murder. The evidence against him was damning: Collier testified that he heard several loud thumps from his parents’ room the night Noreen went missing, and his three year old adoptive sister, who often slept beside their mother, told detectives she saw Boyle hit Noreen and wrap her up “like a mummy”. A pregnant mistress, Noreen’s divorce petition the month before, and a jackhammer rental in the days before her death all helped secure a conviction that has seen Boyle imprisoned ever since.
Documentarian Barbara Kopple’s A Murder in Mansfield introduces Collier and his family through the use of purely archival footage from the trial and surrounding media coverage in its opening minutes. Residents of the small Ohio town describe Boyle’s trial as exciting and like a scene from the movies. Collier, now twelve, takes the witness stand with more poise than most adults, staring down his father as he describes their non-existent relationship. He’s just as articulate 25 years later. Now a cinematographer in California, Collier wants to return home in search of the closure he never found in his adolescent years. For years Boyle maintained his innocence; in the early days of his incarceration, he and Collier exchanged combative letters over his refusal to confess. Collier intends to read one letter, returned unopened, to his father now.
Before visiting Boyle in prison, Collier revisits the places and people that rose to importance after his mother’s death. It’s a sad unfolding of the collateral damage left behind in her absence. Collier lost his father and family home, as well as his adopted sister, whose new family changed her name and slowly lost contact. He grew close to Lt. Dave Messmore, the lead investigator in his mother’s case, and found stability in the home of his adoptive family, the Zeiglers.
Unlike some recent pop culture phenomena, A Murder in Mansfield is not a whodunit. The mystery of Noreen Boyle’s death, insofar as the courts and Collier Landry are concerned, was solved in 1990. Instead Kopple focuses on the effects of that childhood trauma on Collier and his efforts as an adult to move past them. The film’s greatest weakness comes from an unanticipated place. The composure that rightfully earned so much praise for Collier as a boy feels counterproductive as he works to delve into the past. His natural tendency towards eloquence lends a rehearsed feel to most conversations and robs scenes of the raw emotion that makes a good documentary great. This becomes glaringly clear in the staged conversations between Collier and his therapist. Moments of emotional power do peek through, though. When viewing pictures from his mother’s case file for the first time, Collier’s wordless expressions of grief convey more than any speech.
A Murder in Mansfield takes a quieter approach to the true crime genre, although it still doesn’t entirely avoid the theatricality of its flashier counterparts. With few exceptions the tragedy and its ramifications feel as if they are held at arm’s length from the audience, meant for our perusal but not our personal engagement. If the process brings closure and peace for Collier then it should be applauded, but the combination of detachment and staginess makes for an uneven viewing experience.