I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Filmmaker Barbara Kopple is a legend. She’s won two Oscars for Best Documentary, the first of which, for 1976’s Harlan County USA, honors the film that arguably kicked off the modern era of documentary filmmaking as journalistic activism. Now, her latest film is part of a reinvention of the true-crime subgenre to tell stories that are less procedural and more emotional, looking at the long-term impact not on victims or perpetrators but on those on the periphery. (See also: Yance Ford’s Strong Island, now streaming on Netflix.)
Here we meet 38-year-old Collier Landry, a Hollywood cinematographer, as he returns home to Mansfield, Ohio, to confront the terrible tragedy in his past. When he was 11, his father, John Boyle, killed his mother, Noreen Boyle. When he was 12, Landry testified against his father at the murder trial. Kopple (Miss Sharon Jones!, Shut Up & Sing) starts off with archival video of Landry in the courtroom, introducing us to an almost disturbingly precocious tween… though we soon learn the unsettling truth about why young Landry seemed so mature for his age. Today, Landry comes across as fairly happy and well adjusted, though not without problems he attributes to his difficult relationship with his father, who is serving a long prison sentence and will be up for parole again soon. Will his father ever admit his guilt to Landry (who now uses his middle name as his surname)? Are his father’s apparent attempts at reconciliation mere ploys to get his son to support his parole? Landry’s confrontation with his father, which the film culminates in, is by turns bittersweet, chilling, and ultimately hugely sad for the younger man.
There’s no mystery in A Murder in Mansfield; the crime has long since been solved, and John Boyle was justly convicted. And even so, even with what could be considered a best-case outcome for such a horrible crime, the grief of course lingers and the trauma has been spread widely. Landry’s visit with his mother’s best friend, during which they share memories of Noreen, is heartbreaking. Landry’s discussion with a kindly therapist shows that even a sensitive self-awareness such as Landry seems to have about himself is no panacea for coping with PTSD. Clearly Landry has lots of loving champions: in the local family who adopted him; in the cop who investigated his mother’s death, with whom Landry became close. And still, it’s all so difficult.
A Murder in Mansfield is a simple movie, honest and brave in the vulnerability Landry displays, and all the more powerful because of its straightforwardness and, ironically, its lack of overt drama. Recovery is a long and slow even under the best of circumstances, and hence something that can be difficult to depict onscreen when movies demand rapid pacing and pat endings (yes, even documentaries do). Here, though, it’s as if we are seeing the precocious calm of Landry at age 12 peeled away to show that for the protective front that it was, and get a peek at the years-long process that was required of Landry to create that for himself for real. He may not be quite there yet, but almost. Almost. His is a story of the small, everyday triumph that overcoming the past is.
viewed as part of DOC NYC 2017