For the first hour, you’ll think you know where Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling” is going.
But then the film takes a dark and unexpected detour. In one sense, it moves the film to a whole new level, revealing layers you never guessed were there. But that twist also yanks the movie into the deep end and ultimately drags the film down with it.
For years, Eastwood had a perhaps undeserved reputation as a moralist, based mostly on the movies he made for other directors. But, in the past 15 years, he’s revealed himself as a fatalist. In his universe, the truth doesn’t set you free so much as handcuff you and smack you around. And it’s the rare good deed that goes unpunished.
“Changeling” is set in 1920s Los Angeles and is based on a true story, which makes it that much more horrifying. Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) is a single mother of a 9-year-old boy named Walter. She’s a working mom who’s risen to a middle-management rank at the phone company, where supervisors roller-skate from switchboard operator to switchboard operator, solving problems and dealing with crises. As such, she’s forced to work a Saturday shift on a weekend instead of taking her son to the movies, as she’d promised.
She comes home from the extra shift, remorseful and ready to make it up to the boy. But Walter is nowhere to be found. Her call to the Los Angeles Police Department produces an uncaring response: He’s not considered a missing person until he’s been gone 24 hours. As Eastwood shows, during that period the LAPD was a corrupt, violent outfit that tended to run roughshod over the populace.
Five months later, Christine’s son still has not been found. She spends her breaktime at work making long-distance calls to police departments around the country, asking about missing children who may have turned up. Her life has lost meaning beyond her search for her missing boy.
She collapses when the call comes that her son has been found in the company of a drifter in Iowa. But when she arrives at the train station to pick him up – accompanied by publicity-seeking cops who have orchestrated a press mob to get it all on film – she is crushed: The boy who gets off the train is not Walter. He’s roughly the same age and bears a passing resemblance – but it’s not her son.
Rather than apologize, the juvenile-squad police captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan, from USA Network’s delightful “Burn Notice”) gets tough with her. He insists that it is her son and tells her she’s not a very good mother if she doesn’t recognize and embrace him. Kids change, he says; you don’t recognize him because he’s grown while he’s been gone.
So she takes him home – but she’s not fooled. And she’s not willing to stay silent. The cops, however, need a win for public-relations reasons; when this ungrateful woman complains merely because she has the wrong boy, the cops demonize the mother. They use the laws of the time to have her committed to a mental hospital, where she finds herself among a group of women who’ve been institutionalized (and given drugs and shock treatments) because the police have deemed them inconvenient.
Her case eventually is taken up by a crusading minister (John Malkovich), who regularly uses his radio broadcasts to attack the corruption in the LAPD. But it’s at this point that Eastwood shifts focus – and the movie reveals its gruesome underbelly.
The story suddenly turns to Det. Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly), who works in the LAPD’s juvenile bureau. He’s assigned to track down an underage immigrant from Canada who has overstayed his visa. Once he finds the boy – on a dusty, deserted farm near Riverside – the lad breaks down and tells a grisly story of being enslaved by a man, who forced the boy to help him kidnap children and bring them back to the farm, where the man murdered them.
It’s not a parallel story. Rather, this plotline eventually converges with that of Christine Collins, when it comes out that one of the boys snatched up by this monster may, in fact, have been Walter.
Suddenly this movie jumps from a blend of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Girl, Interrupted” to something seriously disturbing: a tale of serial child abduction and murder. In those pre-DNA-testing days, the bones that remain of the killer’s victims provide scant evidence of who the victims were. But the youthful accomplice identifies a photo of Walter – which means that not only has Christine been wrongly institutionalized, but she has been the victim of a highly orchestrated police conspiracy.
And her child is dead.
That kicks off the vengeance portion of the program, with Christine shuttling between courtrooms. In the first, a hearing into police misconduct, witness after witness spills the beans about how the LAPD screwed up the hunt for Walter Collins and then tried to foist a fake son off on Christine. In the other, the murder trial, the evidence is laid out against the serial killer involved with the death of all those boys.
Yet Eastwood splits his focus between Christine and the killer, Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner), a wormy Canadian with a weirdly giddy affect who announces in court that, while he may have killed the other boys, he didn’t kill Walter Collins. Suddenly we’re into a dynamic between Christine and Gordon – and the grasped-at straw that Walter might be alive. It prolongs the inevitable – as well as the movie.
As strong as she was in “A Mighty Heart,” Jolie seems to be at sea here. She can’t quite get a grasp on a pain this large or a hole in the soul this huge – not to mention the anger. Her Christine never succumbs to victimhood but you see the seams in the performance, the effort in the portrayal.
The same is true of Eastwood’s usually sure-handed direction. Here, the exposition seems cobbled together, a patchwork held together by rough stitches. He gets the 1920s milieu, enhancing it with a washed-out color scheme. But it’s all overlaid with his own heavy-handed music; it also has, intentionally or not, the look of an old stereopticon slide superimposed on the background to cover up the modern L.A.
“Changeling” is unwieldy and, at times, lumpy and misshapen. There’s craftsmanship at work, but not much passion, despite the wrenching material.