Changeling is one of Clint Eastwood's darkest and most gripping films (which is saying a lot), as well as a tour-de-force and a stunner for Angelina Jolie, very deserving of her Best Actress nomination. It's sort of like a James Ellroy novel without all the alliteration, but all the smoky jazz. The jazz, in this case, is also provided by Mr. Eastwood, and it's hauntingly perfect, one of the standout soundtracks of the year, as well.
Set in the 1920s, the film tells the true story, painstakingly researched by writer J. Michael Straczynski, of Christine Collins, a Los Angeles telephone switchboard supervisor and independent single mother whose young son Walter disappears one Saturday while she works an extra shift to cover for an absent employee. She had planned to take him to the movies, but ends up making him a sandwich for lunch and promising him the matinee for the next day before leaving for work. When she arrives home to find the house empty and the sandwich still in the refrigerator, she knows something has gone very wrong, but she can have no idea what an ordeal she is in for.
Operating under the old rules of waiting 24 hours before investigating cases of missing children, the Los Angeles police are at first relatively steadfast about the search. While time drags on for Collins, after about a year she gets word that Walter has been found in the company of a strange man, perhaps having been kidnapped or riding the rails like countless other runaways of the era.
Relieved and happy, Collins meets the boy at the train, and, while unconvinced that it is Walter, she admits the possibility that he may have changed and that she may be in shock at seeing him again, and takes him home that night. Again, she can have had no idea what she was letting herself in for. When she determines to her satisfaction that the child is not Walter at all, she returns to the police to ask for help.
This time she is met with hostility, disbelief, unconcern and no help at all. Instead, the police press the idea that they have done the right thing all along, that she is a single mother and perhaps a loose woman trying to shirk her responsibilities, and, as she presses her case, they finally have her committed to the insane asylum to be tortured and pressured into agreeing with them and absolving them of all responsibility for their wrongdoing.
Like the aggrieved killer Will Munny in Unforgiven, Christine Collins absorbs all of the heinous wrongs committed against her, then uses everything at her disposal to track down every last thread of responsibility and complicity. In the process she overturns the Los Angeles police administration and their policies, helping through her actions to track down a serial killer and find his surviving victims, never giving up hope or her abundant determination in the face of impossible odds. It is astonishing that this is a true story, and as astonishing that Eastwood, Straczynski and Jolie have pulled off presenting it as straightforwardly, honestly and strikingly as they have.
Other actors in the cast do excellent supporting work, including John Malkovich as the crusading Rev. Gustav Briegleb, Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) as a prostitute and fellow asylum inmate who gives Collins the lowdown on the situation she faces there, Colm Feore (32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, "Truman") as Police Chief James E. Davis, a brutal commander and political operator who is not quick enough to save himself from his department's misdeeds, Jeffrey Donovan ("Burn Notice") as Captain J.J. Jones, whose prejudices and stubbornness also bring him down, Jason Butler Harner as Gordon Northcott, the infamous Wineville Chicken Coop murderer and Eddie Alderson as his nephew Sanford, Michael Kelly as Detective Lester Ybarra, a police detective whose belief in and strict adherence to the best of good department policy bring much of the story to light, and who brings to mind the serious work of Steve Martin in Grand Canyon and The Spanish Prisoner, and Devon Conti as the smiling, impish fake Walter.
The recreation of a visual Los Angeles of the 1920s is faithful and absolutely complete, from exterior shots to the ins and outs of telephone switchboard operation to the treatment of mental patients and the mechanics of streetcars, automobiles and prisons. There is one moment that feels slightly anachronous, when Collins confronts Northcott in prison, but it is not so out of place that it ruins the total effect, and it does provide an emotional note that satisfies--indeed, it is perhaps more emotional satisfaction than the real Christine Collins ever got from this notorious, insane murderer.
Changeling is a tragedy full of hope and redemption, a thriller with a strong eye on accuracy, a tear-jerker without any cheap sentimentality. It is a very good, richly layered film which rewards multiple viewings, one of the best films of the year and Eastwood's best of the year.
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Roger Ebert Review
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