The words “true crime” have never lost their dime-store tabloid allure. Yet most of us realize that when a story of extreme and shocking violence taps our voyeuristic curiosity, that doesn’t necessarily make it “low.” Ambitious documentary filmmakers have long understood that true-crime material, when treated as the dimension of the human experience it is, can emerge as something spookily resonant and artful.
Errol Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line” looked at murder in the heartland with a spirit that evoked Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song.” Werner Herzog’s “Into the Abyss” entered the minds of two vicious killers (it didn’t get as deep into the abyss as it implied, but it was a game attempt). “O.J.: Made in America” turned the Simpson saga into a charged excavation of the roots of violence. Now Barbara Kopple, the veteran director of documentaries about embattled workers (“Harlan County U.S.A.,” “American Dream”), pop-music freedom fighters (“Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing”), infamous celebrity athletes (“Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson”), and trans YouTube stars (“This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous”), tries her hand at a true-crime exposé with “A Murder in Mansfield.” Her spin is to view a vicious domestic homicide that took place in Ohio in 1989 through the lens of its tragic human fallout. The movie meditates on what murder is by looking, more fully than most movies do, at the legacy of its aftershocks.
The film’s central figure (and one of its executive producers) is Collier Boyle, who was 11 years old when his mother, Noreen, was killed by his father, John, a handsome physician with ice-pick eyes. He struck her head with a blunt object, then stowed the body under the concrete floor of the remote Mill Creek, Pennsylvania, home in which he planned to make a new life for himself and his pregnant mistress.
The film opens with videotaped testimony from the 1990 trial: Collier, on the stand, is a disarmingly articulate pre-teen boy with a theatrical sense of poise, who piles up the case against his father like the climactic witness in a courtroom drama. There is also powerful circumstantial evidence — namely, the fact that John Boyle purchased a jackhammer (to blast through the concrete floor) two days before the murder. At the trial, police video is shown of the corpse being dragged out of that sub-basement bunker, and it’s a hideous vision. The question that haunts us from that moment — how could a human being have done this? — is one that dogs Collier into his adult life.
Most of “A Murder in Mansfield” is set 26 years later, in the present day, when Collier, who is now a Los Angeles-based cinematographer (known professionally as Collier Landry), returns to Mansfield to visit the ghosts of the murder, including his father, who is serving a life sentence in the Marion Correctional Institution. We still see an echo of that child on the witness stand, though Collier, as an adult, while sweet and sharp and compulsively affable, carries a barely submerged air of self-pity. He’s searching, running from his past, crying on the inside. He might be the most moistly earnest member of a 12-step therapy group.
He visits the house, now occupied by another family, and takes us on a tour of the rooms, feeling his dead mother’s presence. He revisits the letters he wrote to his father in prison — innocent missives from a boy who never stopped wanting to be loved — as well as the responses he got back, which ranged from the raging to the affectionate to the manipulative (John wanted his help in swaying the parole board). He revisits the police detective in charge of the case, whom he grew close to at the time, to the point that the officer’s family considered adopting him. He also forces himself to examine the grisly case file. And, finally, he visits his father and asks, essentially, for a confession — and make no mistake, he wants details. That, in Collier’s mind, will give him closure.
It would also, of course, give “A Murder in Mansfield” the sensational final act that on some primitive level the movie encourages us to want. One of the reasons that Barbara Kopple has always been such a good filmmaker is that she has honest showbiz instincts, and in this case those instincts dictate that she take us right up close to a monster. We get our visit, and John Boyle, to our surprise, comes off as the humbled essence of contrite personability. Yet the more Collier talks to him, the more he clings, calmly, to his defense: that he killed Noreen by accident, shoving her against a piece of furniture after she came at him with a knife. He sounds like he believes it; in fact, he sounds entirely sane. But he’s a killer living in a daze of denial. That pesky phrase true crime calls up echoes of facile categories like good and evil. But the upshot of the movie — and of this crime — turns out to be as far from facile as you could get. In “A Murder in Mansfield,” evil doesn’t even know its own name.