Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Changeling, set in the corrupt Los Angeles of the Roaring 1920s, is based on a true story so horrifically weird that it would be a challenge for anyone to figure out how to smoothly, effectively tell it. Eastwood has his problems, although the material is so unusual that this two-and-a-half-hour film holds interest more often than not.
In March 1928, the 9-year-old son of working-class mom Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) goes missing. Five months later, under enormous pressure from Collins and the press, the Los Angeles Police Department finds young Walter in a diner in Illinois.
But when they return him, Collins suspects the boy is an imposter. At the police’s request, however, she “tries him out.” When she subsequently goes public — backed up by evidence — that he’s an imposter, police forcibly institutionalize her for psychiatric evaluation to avoid admitting their mistake.
Meanwhile, on the fringes of the metropolis toward the desert, police stumble onto a serial killer named Gordon Stewart Northcott who kidnaps boys, imprisons them in his farm’s chicken coop and murders them. As they try to unravel these Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, there appears to be a tragic connection between Northcott and Walter’s disappearance, although no definitive proof. Freed from the mental ward, Collins goes after the police in court for their abuse of power while also continuing to hope her missing son is alive.
One way, of course, to tell this story is to focus on the serial killer — in real life as demented as anything Hollywood has dreamed up in movies like Saw or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But such a lurid approach is hardly where the 78-year-old Eastwood is at this stage of his directorial career.
Methodical, ruminative and devoted to observations of characters under great pressure (especially Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby), he’s simply not going to remake Psycho for the 21st century. Instead he and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski decide to highlight the suffering and sacrifice of Christine Collins as she struggles toward empowerment, aware that the proto-feminist story has no easy, uplifting outcome.
But what it does have is Angelina Jolie. The result is a curious star turn. Jolie subsumes her outsized personality for the role, hunkering down below the period hats her character wears and exuding a timid acquiescence to (male) authority far longer than she would if she were out to simply wow us with “big acting.” Even in the scenes where Collins shows defiance — especially toward the sadistically corrupt hospital physician — the outbursts are contained and spare. This is not Return to Girl, Interrupted.
On the other hand, the camera dotes on her face. As a working woman of the time, Collins uses bright red lipstick and heavy eye makeup, often making Changeling seem like a gigantic portrait painting of Jolie with pronounced detailing of her lips. Cinematographer Tom Stern, an Eastwood regular, does some beautiful things with Jolie’s face, such as bringing a shadow across her eyes while she’s in the decrepit hospital. But you notice it.
In general, Eastwood focuses far too much on people talking in this film. Besides Jolie’s Collins, other principals are muckraking Presbyterian minister Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who comes to her aid in challenging the police; ruthlessly arrogant Police Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), who has her committed to cover up his mishandling of the case; and mean-spirited Police Chief James Davis (Colm Feore).
An exception is Jason Butler Harner, who as Northcott gives a scarily eccentric, nervous performance. But how much it affects you depends on whether you feel the film is about his character or that he somehow got jammed into it.
Eastwood would have been far better off to reduce all this face time and instead make Los Angeles itself a major dynamic of the story, as did Roman Polanski in Chinatown, Curtis Hanson in L.A. Confidential and John Schlesinger in Day of the Locust. Too often, however, he treats it like a faded bad dream or something isolated in too much sun.
There are moments its energy emerges, as when Collins as a telephone switchboard supervisor roller-skates past the operators connecting all the calls to and from the big city. That’s exciting, gives the story a jolt and relates it more to real life as lived.
But too often Changeling keeps slipping into pure period piece. It has truth on its side but fights dreariness to reveal it. Grade: C
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