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A Murder in Mansfield

DOC NYC 2017 Review


Independent; 88 minutes

Director: Barbara Kopple


Written by on November 17, 2017 




Tracing the link between prior family violence and the present day, A Murder in Mansfield is Barbara Kopple’s intimate exploration of the relationship between cinematographer Collier Landry and his father John Boyle, who was convicted of the grisly murder of his wife, Noreen. The facts of the case are known: Noreen was killed in the middle of the night in Mansfield, OH, her body transported to the Boyle’s new home in Erie, PA, buried under fresh concrete and discovered in January of 1990. A 12-year-old Collier was the key witness in his mother’s murder trial against his own father, instantly capturing the attention of the news.

Going beyond a “where are they now” story, A Murder in Mansfield explores the effect of the murder as Landry returns from L.A. to Ohio in the dead of winter to revisit his childhood home. The case’s lead investigator, the kind Lt. David Messmore, and Landry ultimately make the trek to visit Boyle in prison. Employing a wide variety of devices, the film jumps around, providing a family history through photographs, news clippings, and media coverage (home videos are largely absent), and present-day footage of Landry retracing the steps. Where the film is less successful is in the boundaries it has set, especially a therapy scene which feels indulgent, tacked-on, and vague.

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Kopple’s camera never leaves the state of Ohio, resulting in perhaps too-limited of a focus; granted, there are limits to subject participation and the film feels a little less profound and interesting as a result. As a short subject, A Murder in Mansfield might have had a stronger impact. Collier comes home for closure, which in the real world may never happen, nor may it unfold while a documentarian’s camera is present. A larger impact is hinted at, including personal adult relationships that go unexplored by the film as Collier eventually returns to Los Angeles.

The film works best as an authentic, estranged father-son story as Landry deals with the fall-out of losing his mother, father, and adopted sister Elizabeth, who was separated in an adoption proceeding. Confused and angry, Collier, who was surprisingly open and performative on the witness stand, tries desperately to reach her in another strand of the story that ends without closure. The relationship between father and son is strained, with Boyle writing manipulative letters to his son seeking his testimony and support, while his son seeks closure.

Less confrontational than Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss, which gave equal screen time to a death row convict and those that were impacted by his crime, Kopple’s film is an intimate travelogue with a narrower focus, showing how a heartbroken community came together to protect a boy and how that young boy may never reconcile it all.

A Murder in Mansfield premiered at DOC NYC.


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