Movie Review: Changeling (2008)

Angelina Jolie in Changeling
Photo: Universal Pictures

Clint Eastwood’s Changeling has one specific failing, you know what’s going to happen before it happens at every turn. It’s unfortunate, because outside of the film’s inability to keep the viewer engaged it manages to score big numbers just about everywhere else.

Based on a true story, Changeling begins in Los Angeles in 1928 and centers on Christine Collins played by Angelina Jolie in a way much more subdued than the trailers would lead us to believe. My number one fear going into this film was Jolie would be angling for an emotional breakdown at all times sending the film into a dramatic bout of melodrama. Jolie, in fact, plays the part to perfection and it is instead Eastwood’s slow moving score and tendency to keep the camera lingering that turns this film into an over the top dramatic piece rather than the more tempered performance delivered by Jolie. This story didn’t need any embellishing or over the top performances, it was sad enough as is and somehow Jolie manages to sell every single time she is asked to say, “I want my son back!” as if it were a new phrase each time.

Getting back to story, early in the feature Collins, a single mother, comes home from a late day at work only to find her son missing. Of course, many may look at the situation and wonder why anyone would leave their 9-year-old child home alone, but the fact is young Walter is indeed now gone and missing, so you get on with it. However, Christine is not entirely able to “get on with it”, as it were, she is met by roadblocks at the police department and what seems to be an ill-conceived search. Suddenly, five months later a child matching Walter in age only is found and returned to Christine who is told by the police it is her son even though she can tell by looking at him it isn’t. Christine is encouraged by the police to take the boy home on a “trial basis” but she never gives up hope her son will be found and that is where the film finds its angle.

I was surprised to find out Changeling had a runtime of 2 hours and 20 minutes. Even as I was watching I never felt a serious drain on my ability to pay attention, but I did realize nothing was really hitting home outside of the performances and Tom Stern’s muted cinematography. Along with Jolie there are a load of impactful performances including Michael Kelly as Lester Ybarra, a detective that plays a large role toward the latter portion of the film and John Malkovich who plays Reverend Gustav Briegleb who really serves as Christine’s coach and primary motivator as he has been a long protestor of the Los Angeles Police Department. The top performance in the film, however, comes from 14-year-old Eddie Alderson who plays a young boy with a storyline serving as the film’s climactic centerpiece. Alderson is exceptional in a role that calls for some serious emotional mining and for a young actor to pull it off as well as he did was quite impressive.

One actor I can’t dole out praise on would be Jeffrey Donovan who plays police Captain J.J. Jones, the antagonist of the film. Donovan is tapping into some kind of weird accent I won’t even attempt to describe and he seems to be trying far too hard with his performance. I know he is the “bad guy” of the film, but I’m not sure if the intention was to annoy the audience with the character as much as it was to instill rage. Donovan did far too much of the former, which was the primary cause for the latter.

My problem with Changeling remains in the storytelling. This film is not told as a thriller, even though it could have been. This is a straight forward story of a growing rage with a corrupt police department, but the timing of the film seems out of place. Sure, if this was a modern story it would hold more value for me, but as it stands this is an 80-year-old story and it is told as one. Eastwood, no matter how adept he is at moving from scene to scene, does just that and not much in the way of involving the audience in the process of “finding” the story. Instead the story is just handed over with all facts in place. He turns the page on the story as we read along hoping something will catch us off guard, but it never does as we feel as if we already have all the answers. Had this been a more modern tale it would have been more of an eye-opener, but as it stands an 80-year-old missing kid story just isn’t as interesting.

It is no secret how this film ends, but there is no point in telling you now and ruining your chance at possibly enjoying it if you don’t already know. Changeling is not a horrible movie and some are sure to like it, I found enjoyment in the performances and it served as just enough to pass the time, but I wouldn’t recommend it.