Depictions of grief and trauma tend to abound at film festivals, which is where I saw A Murder in Mansfield – a context that really clarified just how nuanced, meditative and respectful Barbara Kopple’s latest documentary is in its depiction of the horrific events at its core. Those events are the murder of Noreen Boyle in 1989, by her husband, John Boyle, in the small Ohio town of Mansfield. The crime itself was sensational enough, given that Boyle buried his wife beneath a slab of concrete in his basement after striking and suffocating her, turning the trial into a media event that local residents described as “better than a soap opera,” garnering so much attention that a television had to be set up outside the court room for those members of the public who couldn’t manage to secure a seat inside. What made the trial especially extraordinary, however, was the testimony of Noreen and John’s son, Collier Boyle, who volunteered to take the witness stand despite being told he wouldn’t be expected to make a statement. Once there, he proceeded to provide a panoply of evidence to support the prosecution – both anecdotally, by outlining the vast history of abuse that had preceded his father’s actions, and, more practically, by detailing what he heard on the night of his mother’s murder, which turned out to corroborate precisely with the forensic evidence that the state had manage to glean from perusal of the crime scene.
The footage of that testimony is, in many ways, the heart of A Murder in Mansfield, since it’s not hard to see why Collier became a cult figure in the town at large. In his articulation, diction and determination, he’s well beyond his years, but that maturity also makes the parts of his persona that are still grounded in childhood all the more emphatic as well, as Kopple offers up precocity – genuine precocity – as a vulnerable relaying of selfhood, or a vulnerable mode of self-presentation, above all else. In another kind of true crime documentary, aspersions might be cast upon Collier’s character as a result of this inherent conflict to his self-presentation, but Kopple embraces it as the core of his integrity and courage, as we shift to the present tense where Collier, now Collier Landry, is returning to Mansfield in order to provide himself with some kind of closure to the events that happened twenty-six years ago. For all that the obligatory syntax of true crime television and cinema – haunted music, drone shots, empty townscapes – suggests some irrevocable shift in register and sensibility, the most striking thing about Collier is how similar he is as an adult – or how much of an adult he already was as a child – as this same precocious combination of courage and vulnerability suffuses his efforts to reconnect with people from his past, people involved with the crime and, eventually, his father, who is still serving time.
Part of what makes the film so compelling is that it’s a bit unclear how much contact Collier has maintained with these people since moving to Los Angeles to become a director and cinematographer fifteen years earlier. In most cases, they eem to have spent regular time with him, but to also be greeting him again after a long period away, registering his characteristic combination of adult courage and childlike vulnerability by responding to him within two competing timeframes – one in which he never left the town, and one in which he is indeed returning after fifteen years away. That in itself says something about the presence he still holds in Mansfield, and about the enormity of his gesture in helping convict his mother’s murderer, which seems even more courageous as the film proceeds. To some extent, that because we see the toll this has taken on Collier’s mind and body, in what often feels like a twenty-six year process of gradual recovery from the immense effort required to take the stand. At the same time, however, Collier’s attachment to his mother, and his ongoing investment in his mother’s legacy, comes to imbue his actions, as a child, with a different kind of courage, one more associated with the role demanded of an American son.
Put more bluntly, what remains so compelling about Collier is that he simply doubles down on affirming his bond with his mother, rather than questioning himself, or permitting the question to even be raised, of whether his relation with her conformed to those expected of American masculinity. Pretty early on, it becomes clear that this could easily play as a coming-out narrative, as Collier’s fascination with his mother’s Louis Vuitton purses, love of shopping, and devotion to her physique all lend themselves to a fairly predictable account of adolescent sexuality, whose moment of crisis would be his testimony against his father. To its credit, though, the film never allows Collier’s story to be exclusively understood through that lens – or, rather, if this is a coming-out narrative, Kopple makes it clear that there’s something other than sexual orientation at stake, subsuming any queries about Collier’s proclivities, which are tactfully elided, into his decision to affirm the significance of his mother to be at least as equal to, if not more pronounced than, that of his father. After all, a boy defending his father in court wouldn’t seem nearly as eccentric within the landscape of American popular culture as Collier’s adamant testimony here, partly because his time on the stand is never remotely couched in terms of a nascent protectionist or paternalistic instinct of his own, let alone a desire to adopt or fall into his father’s position.
That willingness to speak on behalf of his mother without having to consciously frame it as either a conscious overidentification with or subversion of paternal authority is what gives Collier both his courage and his vulnerability, both as a boy and as a man. It’s on the witness stand, though, that you sense him taking the greatest risk, aligning himself with his mother rather than his father, despite a legal system that deliberately counsels against it, and despite having no clear sense of what kind of identity this might produce down the track. Twenty-six years later, he still hasn’t defined himself in terms of this maternal affiliation in any single way, as much as the crime, and its aftermath, has indubitably shaped his life. As much as his father might want to conceive of him as an antagonist, then, and frame this maternal affiliation as inherently antagonistic, monstrous and even evil – as evinced in his first flurry of letters from prison – what makes Collier even more remarkable is the way he seeks to understand and forgive his father’s actions, on the condition that John Boyle acknowledge the full extent of the crime, and the emotions and intensities that produced it.
This brings us to the final part of the film, in which Collier visits his father in prison to try and get some kind of acknowledgment, however distant, that the murder was premeditated, since Boyle has long recanted on his denial (for parole reasons, it seems, as much as anything else) but still insists that it was an accident. All the facts are arraigned against him – the autopsy, the suffocation, the fact that he purchased a jackhammer several days before the incident – but he nevertheless insists on his innocence, going so far as to suggest that Collier’s “obsession” with the case still stems from an unhealthy maternal attachment more than anything else, despite the fact that his testimony exactly matched the facts of the murder as established by the prosecution, coroner and crime scene itself. While Boyle’s pathologisation of his son may be much more tacit and tactful than in his first letters from prison, his assumption of benign paternal mildness makes him even eerier, even as if renders Boyle’s positioning of himself even more courageous and vulnerable. Once again, as on the witness stand, he experiments in pitting himself against his father without turning it into a father-son agon, going so far as to ask him to channel some of the affective intensity that resulted in the crime so that he can at least bear witness to it and forgive it in person. Given that Boyle won’t even concede that the facts of the case are odd, however, it’s a futile gesture, just as the very “concern” with which he now greets his son is what ultimately makes him unforgivable, insofar as it puts Collier in a position in which the only interpretation provided by the murderer in front of him is that his relationship with his mother, and his testimony itself, was the real crime that emerged from the whole situation.
As Collier puts it to his psychologist, then, this final confrontation with his father isn’t something to be grieved, but a form of grieving in itself – a way of experiencing, and working through, the blunt insistence on paternal authority, and of a son’s obedience to his father above all else, that prevents Boyle from admitting to the most critical parts of the crime, despite the fact that these appear to be the most substantiated by evidence as well. It’s strangely apt, then, that Boyle himself is now a grief counsellor, and uses the language of grief counselling in his conversation with his son, since Kopple, and the film as a whole, are deeply skeptical about the ways in which grief, trauma and horror are presented as putatively non-narrative, or extra-narrative phenomena – as bursts of raw affect that deny or defy being reduced to a trajectory or series of events. Instead, what A Murder in Mansfield makes so eloquently clear is that even or especially the most ostensibly raw expressions of grief are always determined by a script – a script that, in this case, is inextrixably gendered in terms of what is considered to be the correct allocation of tragedy and pathos. Breaking that script was what endeared Collier to the residents of Mansfield in the first place, and it’s also what makes him so compelling here, especially because he never provides a counter-script in its place, but turns the very pressure to adopt that counter-script into the grief that he needs to work his way through. And the film itself is a vehicle for that process as much as anything else, imbuing Kopple’s vision with a provisional, open-ended sense of possibility that, ultimately, couldn’t be further from the bracketed and foreclosed forensic details so fetishised by the contemporary true crime it so artfully queries.