The Clint Eastwood renaissance has been a joy to behold. While many thought his 1992 Oscar for Unforgiven would mark the culmination of an amazing, four decade long career, the new millennium has seen an amazing string of cinematic gems. In the last three years alone, we’ve witnessed Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flag of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Now comes Changeling, a 1920s period piece about the notorious Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, and the one woman who stood up to the incredibly corrupt LA county police system. Naturally one expects a stumble after such a string of special efforts, but this is not the fall. Unfortunately, it also has a hard time fitting in with the rest of his considered classics.
On a cool Spring Saturday, phone company employee Christine Collins left her small son Wallace all alone in their quiet LA neighborhood. She promised to be home by four. When she arrived back, a little late, she was startled to find her boy missing. A phone call to the police provided little comfort. Eventually, when law enforcement became involved, Christine received assurances that everything possible was being done. Five months later, there was a break in the case. The police returned a young boy to Christine. Much to her chagrin, she immediately realized it was not her son.
Thus began a series of confrontations with officials, the media, and local agitators. Unable to control the bad press, the Captain in charge commits Christine to a local insane asylum. There, she is tormented by her doctor in hopes of forcing her to sign an acknowledgment that the boy is indeed her son. With the help of a prominent pastor and a no nonsense attorney, Christine gets her day in court. Meanwhile, the fate of her actual son, and several other missing children, may lie in the arid soil of a remote ranch where a transient and his young charge have been involved in some horrific, unspeakable acts.
Changeling is a very good movie that misses being great by the smallest of margins. It’s overlong and dramatically drawn out, leading light Jolie given one too many scenes to weep her seemingly copious tears. The casting is suspect, everyone but our anguished lead carved out of what appears to be second tier choices. And there’s a sensational subplot - actually, the real meat of Changeling‘s narrative - which constantly threatens to be more engaging and interesting than Christine Collins’ snake pit suffrage. When tied together with Eastwood’s LA by way of True Confessions atmosphere, and a series of real life contrivances that may strike contemporary audiences as nothing but laughable, you’ve got a fascinating idea marginalized by elements that, perhaps, cannot or could not be helped.
It’s safe to say that Jolie was the perfect choice for Collins. She’s mousy without looking lost, and her radiant beauty belies a vulnerability which later becomes crucial to the story. During the opening sequences where her life as a roller-skating phone company supervisor is highlighted, we sense something strong in this woman. When faced with the prospect of taking on the exceedingly corrupt Los Angeles police department, it’s fascinating to watch that resolve disappear. Jolie also has excellent scenes with her two “sons”. Before the crime, her creative ways of dealing with her boy’s familial concerns (she is, after all, a single mother in the late ‘20s) are wonderful. Afterwards, the suspect way she treats the unfamiliar child says everything about who Christine Collins is.
Too bad no one else can really match her spirit. John Malkovich comes across as a crusader without a cause, a plot device brought in over and over again when justice needs to be metered out and audience vigilantism needs appeasement. Jeffery Donovan has it even worse. As the main “villain” of the piece, the smug Captain forcing the false child on Collins to save the department’s PR perspective, he appears to have been hired for his resemblance to Eastwood circa Rawhide. He’s a cipher, an empty space where something really evil needs to be. Along the way, there is fine work from others - Amy Ryan as a asylum inmate, Michael Kelly as the detective who breaks the mass murder case - but when two child actors steal the film outright from their more mature peers, you sense something is amiss.
Indeed, Changeling frequently stumbles over its ambitions. You can tell Eastwood (who joined the production late, after Ron Howard passed to pursue Frost/Nixon) thinks he is making a post post-modern Chinatown, a calm façade indictment of California as a last bastion of wicked wild west immorality. The police chief is referred to as a gunslinger, his men as a band of rogue hoodlums. The horrendous murders are exploited in slash and burn bits of directorial bravado, Eastwood going gonzo on occasion to paint Gordon Northcott as an unhinged if personable psychopath. The shots of early century LA are radiant in their detail, and Jolie’s life seems lived in, a series of cable car patterns and daily interpersonal rituals that the 78 year old director seems to excel at.
And yet Changeling never turns into the epic it promises to be. The loony bin business seems lifted from another, lesser b-movie experience, and the last act juxtaposition between competing court proceedings functions like a luxury the narrative can’t really afford. A good fifteen minutes could have been removed from the languid two and a half hour running time and the performances or the plot wouldn’t miss it. ‘Indulgent’ is not a word readily associated with Eastwood, and yet this film is full of instances where a little expositional economy would have elevated things. We don’t need all the conclusions, the denouements on top of already discovered truths. It’s as if the film wants to beat you over the head with how badly Collins was treated, and therefore wants to make her vindication twice as overbearing.
Thankfully, there’s so much here to enjoy that the moments of overkill don’t destroy Changeling‘s chances. Had Eastwood simply focused on the Wineville Murders, he’d have wound up with something shocking and somewhat sleazy. By bringing Christine Collins into the picture, the crime (and the equally criminal style government syndicate desperate to keep things quiet) and the fall out receive a necessary, nuanced human face. It may not live up to the Greek tragedy tenets of Mystic River, or rewrite the rules of the sports film like Baby, but then again, Eastwood doesn’t need to finesse this material. He has the truth on his side. Changeling is one of the better films you will see this year. Oddly enough, it definitely isn’t among the best.