Film noir, psychodrama, melodrama and more are crammed into Eastwood’s ambitious Changeling.
Changeling is of unusual interest on a number of accounts—as a Clint Eastwood production, as an Angelina Jolie vehicle, as an L.A. noir period piece, as sidelong psychodrama, as a curiously unstable combination of social protest and tabloid melodrama, etc.
Based on a bizarre but mostly forgotten series of incidents from the annals of Southern California crime in the late 1920s, the story has a number of angles that can seem both sensationalistic and daringly topical—missing children and kidnapping, an aggrieved single mother, political corruption, a serial killer, social injustice and police misconduct.
But for all that is impressive and even urgent in it, Changeling‘s storytelling waxes and wanes in oddly uneven fashion. Much of the first half of the tale focuses chiefly on Catherine Collins (Jolie), the single mom whose 9-year-old son Walter disappears suddenly one day in 1928. The LAPD, indifferent to the case at first, eventually informs her that her son has been found alive in Illinois, but when the arranged reunion occurs, she realizes the boy is not her son. The police insist she’s wrong, force her to take the child into her home, and when she persists in her protests and begins to prove her point, they have her incarcerated in the county psych ward.
A crusading minister/radio evangelist (John Malkovich) starts coming to her defense even before the most extravagant of the injustices have set in, but by then Changeling is also morphing into something more like a multicharacter police procedural, with several separate-but-related stories to tell—the minister’s battle with the LAPD, the police officials’ orchestration of a campaign of self-promotion and cover-up, Collins’ encounters with inmates and doctors inside the psych ward, a lone police investigator’s pursuit of a weirdly unfolding and increasingly appalling case at a chicken ranch near Riverside, etc.
It’s a genuinely intriguing story throughout, but in the hands of Eastwood and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5), it too often adds up to something less than the sum of its parts. The multistrand story and the mixing of genres (crime story, feminist melodrama, gothic horror, psycho-social docudrama) are among the production’s strong points, initially, but the wavering tones of individual scenes and of much of the acting—from melodramatic hysteria to documentary detachment and back again, in the most extreme instances—undermine the film’s larger potentials.
Jolie does a stylized star-turn with her character’s suffering, but is not particularly effective in evoking any illuminating character qualities in a hard-pressed mother and working girl in the Los Angeles of 1928. In unfortunate contrast, Malkovich’s minister suggests more complexities than the movie can really absorb, while Jeffrey Donovan (as Capt. J.J. Jones, Collins’ police nemesis) is given multiple opportunities to replay the same cliché of clueless malevolence.
Simplistic villainy recurs among most of Collins’ various official tormentors (and the actors playing them), with Denis O’Hare’s comparatively subtle jailhouse shrink being perhaps the most notable exception. The film’s best acting comes more or less in the margins—Amy Ryan as the psych-ward inmate who becomes a problematical ally for Collins, and Jason Butler Harner as a psychopath whose country-bumpkin mannerisms don’t quite succeed in hiding his disturbed nature.
Finally, a story so richly concerned with the precariousness of sanity and the elusiveness of justice really needs something more from more of its actors, and more in the way of character concepts from its writer and director. I’m glad to have seen this movie and glad to have it here, but I dearly wish it had reached a little higher—and come a little closer to the likes of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential, or to the best of Eastwood (Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, say) as well as the Jolie of A Mighty Heart.