Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins
John Malkovich as Rev. Gustav Briegleb
Jeffrey Donovan as Capt. J.J. Jones
Michael Kelly as Det. Lester Ybarra
Colm Feore as Chief James E. Davis
Jason Butler Harner as Gordon Northcott
Amy Ryan as Carol Dexter
Geoffrey Pierson as S.S. Hahn
Denis O’Hare as Dr. Jonathan Steele
Frank Wood as Ben Harris
Peter Gerety as Dr. Earl W. Tarr
Reed Birney as Mayor Cryer
Gattlin Griffith as Walter Collins
Devon Conti as Arthur Hutchins
Eddie Alderson as Sanford Clark
Directed by Clint Eastwood
(Note: There are some plot spoilers in the review below about a secondary storyline not shown in the advertisement/trailer and a few other things you may want to skip if you plan on seeing the movie.)
Clint Eastwood’s attempt at a period true crime story offers some interesting ideas on police corruption during the late ’20s, and it’s a great looking film for sure, but it also lacks the focus and direction to really be effective.
It’s Los Angeles 1928 and single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) is frantic when she loses her 9-year-old son Walter. After a nationwide manhunt, the police produce a boy they claim to be her son, but her protests that he isn’t fall on deaf ears. She gets the help of the Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) to try to find out the truth, but the police captain (Jeffrey Donovan) has Christine institutionalized to cover-up the truth behind the police department’s grievous error.
There’s something intriguing about Clint Eastwood tackling a true crime story set in L.A. for his first film since tackling the battle of Iwo Jima from two perspectives, and parallels can certainly be drawn to movies like “L.A. Confidential” and Brian De Palma’s “Black Dahlia” by the way he handles the period. It’s also his second recent film with a strong female lead after “Million Dollar Baby,” arguably one of his better films in recent years.
In this case, it’s Angelina Jolie’s Christine Collins, the single mother of a 9-year-old boy who disappears when she leaves him alone when she goes in on her day-off of her job supervising a phone switchboard. As one might expect, the boy’s disappearance makes her frantic, but after the police spend months looking for him, they bring back a boy who looks and claims to be Walter, though Christine is puzzled by the fact that he’s nothing like the son she remembers. The police captain in charge of the case is insistent she’s wrong, but when Christine persists, getting others to corroborate her claims, the captain has her institutionalized. See, the L.A. police department has been trying to improve their standing with the populace, having been targeted by the media and the likes of Reverend Gustav Brigleb (John Malkovich), a zealous minister who regular rails against them on his radio show.
Even if this were based on a true story–it’s brazenly subtitled as “A true story,” not “based on” or “inspired by”–it’s a fairly ludicrous premise that’s hard to believe in the way it’s presented here, especially where Eastwood starts playing around with different film genres to create a heightened tone that has very little to do with realism.
As the driving force of the film, Angelina Jolie’s performance is certainly one of its strengths, though it involves a lot of the same crying and screaming we saw her do slightly better in “A Mighty Heart” and even “The Good Shepherd.” By the time she’s throwing plates of food and yelling, “Where’s my son? You’re not my son!” over and over, you’ll probably be thankful no one has created a drinking game based on this movie yet, because you’ll be plastered by the time Christine is carted off to the funny farm. Her time in the “psychotic ward,” which will remind some of our first taste of Jolie in “Girl Interrupted,” is such a heightened experience, it’s hard not to laugh at the constant menace of “Room 18” looming over the women. (Seriously, you don’t have to have seen many movies to figure out it’s the room where they perform electroshock therapy on patients.) Fortunately, this is also where Amy Ryan enters the picture as a woman of ill repute who has been sent away to prevent her from spilling the beans on a police officer under the same “Code 12” that allowed them to lock up Christine.
At that point, the film also diverges into a second storyline involving a serial killer who has reportedly been kidnapping and killing young boys along with a young accomplice, who comes forward to help the police find the monster. This part of the story follows Michael Kelly’s Detective Lester Ybarra, who hadn’t appeared in the movie previously, and it’s a strange shift in tone after focusing so much on Jolie’s character, but it brings things back to reality. While this storyline opens up another explanation for Walter’s disappearance, there isn’t a lot of mystery or intrigue involved, since Eastwood’s omnipresent camera has already been following the killer while he’s abducting boys at that point.
Other than Jolie and Ryan, the performances aren’t that special with Jeffrey Donovan delivering his lines as the police captain in such a stylized and dated way that his character seems fake and hollow. On the opposite side of the spectrum is the killer Gordon Northcott, played by Jason Butler Harner, giving a performance so outlandish, one may wonder why Crispin Glover wasn’t called in to play the part, since he can do this sort of thing in his sleep. John Malkovich’s character, one Reverend Gustav Brigleb, is more of an enigma, though it’s not some of Malkovich’s more exciting or inspired work. Compared to the caricature-like performances by some of the adults, the young actors are surprisingly good, but even they get into some of the forced crying that takes you out of the movie.
Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski has spent a lot of time writing for television and comic books and this is a solid script with much of the same strong dialogue that’s made his previous so noteworthy. Putting that script into the hands of Eastwood might have been the biggest mistake, since he effectively turns it into a “Clint Eastwood Movie” complete with some of the same overwrought emotional manipulating he used more effectively in “Mystic River.”
The real killer for the movie may be Eastwood’s inability to accept the fact that hiring a real composer to create a proper score for your movie would do wonders for creating a mood and establishing a tone. Instead, we get the same noodly piano and acoustic guitar, Eastwood has used far too often in his movies, and like with “Flags of Our Fathers,” it doesn’t always work, making parts of the movie feel overly sentimental, something that’s not exactly an appropriate emotion to have.
More than anything, “Changeling” feels like Eastwood’s attempt to play with genres, as it’s a prison drama of sorts one moment, then a serial killer thriller the next, before leading to a dual courtroom drama where we’re following not just one court case, but two at once, one of them involves Christine suing the city for her treatment, the other being the trial of the serial killer. There’s absolutely no reason this movie needed to be over two hours long, but that’s another Eastwood trademark, piling a movie full of developments and over-exposition that detracts from the central plot. The last third of the movie goes off on far too many tangents as it continues to follow Christine’s life after the ordeal, including a scene that seems inspired by “Capote.” But is there any real reason why we need to know that Christine’s supervisor is interested in her and then have a whole scene with her listening to the Oscars, because he made an Oscar bet with her for the sole purpose of taking her out? No, probably not, but that’s just a small example of the amount of needless fat padded onto what might have been a relatively simple premise otherwise.
It’s a shame the movie suffers from such obvious storytelling problems, since it might be one of the better looking movies this year, thanks to the keen eye of cinematographer Tom Stern and the top-notch production design used to recreate California during the late ’20s. (Maybe someday, we’ll find out why Universal is so fixated on setting movies in this era as this joins “Cinderella Man,” “Leatherheads” and countless others.)
We won’t give away whether or not Christine ever does find out what happened to her son and whether he’s alive or dead, but by the end, it’s hard not to feel like the entire missing child storyline was nothing more than a red herring for an exploration of police corruption and the way women were treated during that era. Certainly the movie gets more interesting as it goes along, but with so many different storylines, you may be scratching your head in trying to figure out exactly what Eastwood was trying to accomplish.
The Bottom Line:
If you’re able to forgive Clint Eastwood’s constant use of the same filmmaking tricks he’s overused in all his recent movies, you might be able to accept “Changeling” for what it is, an indictment of police corruption and sexism during that time period. Even so, it’s a movie that suffers from its lack of focus by trying to create an overly complex story that would probably have been just as interesting if it were kept simpler… and at least a half hour shorter.