2008 // USA // Clint Eastwood // November 5, 2008 // Theatrical Print
C - The most rote film that Clint Eastwood has directed in at least a decade, Changeling is a grim, sprawling, fairly unremarkable period drama. It's not a bad film by any means: gloriously detailed, solidly acted, and shot with a cool, painterly eye. It's also maddeningly predictable to the point of tedium, and at least forty-five minutes too long given the absence of any narrative shakeups. Is is really possible that the man behind the Olympian deconstruction of Unforgiven and the bleak soul-searching of Million Dollar Baby could create a film bloated on such uninspired to-and-fro? The term "well-made" as backhanded compliment never seemed more appropriate: Changeling is a film that cues its required quota of approving nods and gasps of outrage, an archetypal Serious Adult Drama. Again, not a bad film by any means, but I can't shake the impression that it's a step backwards for the veteran American un-auteur.
In 1928 Los Angeles, telephone technician and single mom Christine Collins (Angelia Jolie) lives with her young son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith) in a modest bungalow. After working late one day, Christine returns to an empty house. Walter has vanished, and Christine is shocked to discover that the police won't even begin looking for her son until 24 hours have passed. (If only she had lived in the era of Law & Order, she would have known this.) Christine's interactions with the notoriously corrupt Los Angeles police department only go downhill from there, particularly with respect to the imperious, condescending Captain Jones (Jeffrey Donovan). Eventually, miracle of miracles, the LAPD presents Christine with Walter, alive and well. Except: "That's not my son!," Christine exclaims for the first of several hundred times. In the glare of the press' flashbulbs, Captain Jones grimaces and quietly pleads with Christine to take the strange boy home, "on a trial basis."
Case closed, the police declare cheerfully, for they need the public relations coup of a reunited mother and son. Christine, however, will not be dissuaded. Her insistence that "Walter" is not her Walter eventually leads to a personal crusade against the LAPD, wherein she joins forces with a local activist minister and radio host (John Malkovich). When Christine goes public with her accusations, Jones waves his hand and she is hauled off—er, "escorted"—to a mental hospital, where casual misogyny gives way to clinical sadism. Fortunately, Christine's salvation and vindication are set in motion when the no-nonsense Detective Yberra (Michael Kelly) heads off into the desert for a routine deportation. His search leads him into the ugly heart of one of the most notorious crimes of the early twentieth century, and therein may lie the answer to Christine's ultimate, aching question: Where is my son?
Changeling provides a rare, harrowing glimpse of a fading (but not vanished) nightmare-America, where the police behave like cruel potentates and women are little more than bothersome children to be dismissed and punished. The film's moral and social commentary, while admirable, is scraped too thinly over too vast a landscape. Changeling aspires to tackle sexism, psychiatry, police corruption, the treatment of children, criminal guilt, and the death penalty. However, Eastwood and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski are just nibbling at a Serious Issues buffet. Earnest and decidedly unambitious, Changeling is so aggressively Sociology 101 in its tone that one can envision the Discussion Questions: "How does the LAPD's treatment of Christine reflect society's perception of women in 1928?" The film's shallow approach to such matters undercuts their novelty and necessity.
Happily, Jolie is a comfortable fit for the material and the era. Smokey-eyed and crimson-lipped beneath her flapper hats, she captures the doggedness and vulnerability that a credible mother-in-peril role demands. Still, it's essentially a serviceable portrayal, as are most of Changeling's performances (Malkovich in particular seems to be phoning it in). Only Michael Kelly manages to engage, especially in the film's pivotal and unquestionably finest scene, where Yberra's interrogation of a child suspect is swept along on a tide of shock and swelling dread. While Changeling's drama might be merely competent, its period trappings are wondrous, a landscape to truly savor. Rich in 1920s and 30s detail, it's the sort of feature that production designers live and die for. Fiercely meticulous without ever exhibiting an indulgent streak, Deadwood alum James Murakami's Los Angeles commands our attention in every shot.
I feel as though I'm underselling Changeling's strengths, so let me clear: It's a fine film, an effective slice of drama that marches along from Points A to B to C with nary a hitch. Provided one is comfortable with the plodding pace and engaged in the scenery passing by, there's not much to actively dislike here. Eastwood offers us exactly the sort of straight-arrow storytelling and bland righteousness that's endemic to late autumn prestige pictures. So why do I feel a little bit cheated?