Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie took it on the chin from certain corners for last year’s high profile slip up “Changeling.” Though not without its defenders “Changeling” was unfairly belittled by many a critic who seemed to be bearing a grudge against Jolie and her high profile, tabloid status. It was more fun to be snide than acute. With expectations out of the way and any and all buzz now long forgotten, “Changeling” can be viewed in a more even-handed climate, and what one may find is a more than decent, thoroughly compelling, unconventional drama. It may be less than perfect, but it is in no way some kind of laughable disaster to be held up for unwarranted ridicule.
Jolie plays Christine Collins, a single mother in 1928 Los Angeles who heads off to work unexpectedly one afternoon, leaving her son alone. Upon returning home, she finds her son gone, but no sign of any struggle. She’s immediately met by beauracratic red tape when she calls the police to report her son missing. Cut to five months later. The police return a boy to Christine, but she knows it’s not him. They cajole her into taking him home and when she tries to convince them taht they’ve made an error, they label her insane. And so the constantly shifting plot of “Changeling” winds it’s curious course. She becomes a noble cause defended by John Malkovich’s Reverend Briegleb, a righteous soul out to expose rampant police corruption. She’s thrown into an insane asylum for refusing to acquiesce to police demands that the stranger child is her son. We meet her son’s likely abductor, a twitchy lunatic who is a mass murderer of children. It’s all so lurid and ridiculous that the only thing holding it together is the fact that it’s all based on a true story and that the story is being piloted by the cool and even hand of director Eastwood.
Eastwood’s old fashioned sense of no fuss stylization keeps “Changeling” from veering into corny melodrama. It would be easy to over blow nearly every situation the film presents into a series of climaxes and high drama. Such a case probably would’ve made “Changeling” unwatchable. As it is, he instills the film with crafted feelings, carefully shifting from mystery to outrage to horror and earning the right to keep things fluid and unconventional. Jolie took some lumps for her performance here, and it’s easy to see why she was unfairly slapped around. Her character is singularly focused on getting her son back and all other emotions play second to this. It leads to a feeling of repetition in her performance, but what other way could her character be? Her child is her life and to make her character suddenly fret or agonize over something else would’ve been a waste.
As for the rest of the cast, Eastwood can often undercut his best work by dropping in cartoon colored, two dimensional characters into the mix of complex dramas, but here everyone is playing it a bit arch and on the nose. Malkovich fits surprisingly well into the part of crusading dogooder. Colm Feore and Jeffrey Donovan make suitably selfish and sleazy LAPD cops. Jason Harner is all deranged ticks, crazy twitches and maniacal laughter as child killer Gordon Northcott. And making a strong first impression as a sad accomplice to Northcott’s killer is teenager Eddie Alderson. With everyone on the same page stylistically and the lack of under the surface qualities inherent in everyone, things gel together for the best.
“Changeling” may be no “Zodiac”, but it is a worthy movie, entertaining and engrossing. Eastwood deserves some credit here but most of that was saved for his slightly overrated “Gran Torino.” He’s put together a complex film that most other filmmakers probably would’ve fumbled around for then ruined. He’s even supplied it with one of his accomplished, low key scores. Special, and surprise, appreciation can also go to writer J. Michael Straczynski. After years of beating the carcass of his dead science fiction creation “Babylon 5”, he’s finally shown himself capable of creating something worth pursuing. Having Eastwood look over your shoulder can no doubt be of help.