Changeling August 26, 2015
What makes Changeling such a profoundly affecting film is the fact that its shades of outrage feel real. It is based on a true crime(s), but there are no moments of biographical movie artifice. It is so unabashedly grim one could swear that the sun is a front covering the underlying wickedness of the universe. It tells the too-awful-to-be-true story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a 1920s-era working mother who faces her worst nightmare when her nine-year-old son (Gattlin Griffith) vanishes into thin air after she covers a late-night shift.
Emotionally stunted and empty, she does everything she can to eventually hold him in her arms once again — and after months of relentless searching, the police find him in middle-of-nowhere Illinois. One problem: it isn’t her son. This boy is three inches shorter, pudgier around the face, and is circumcised. His teacher and dentist can vouch for her. But the LAPD, being the corrupt beating heart of the city, insists it is. The best medical professionals identified him themselves, they say as if a mother knowing what her son looks and sounds like is a completely absurd notion. Christine simply wants her son back — and so she continues fighting for him, despite a mind-boggling police ordered mental hospital lockup.
It’s clear that the LAPD knows the kid isn’t hers, but, being the fraudulent public service it is, continues to stay stubborn with the objective of attempting to fix their tarnished reputation. So imagine their panic when one of the few and far between good detectives, Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly), takes the word of a confessor and discovers the bodies of several young boys in Wineville, CA, a crime scene that could be related to the disappearance.
Changeling is long at 141 minutes, but its ability to turn juicier and juicier at every turn makes it compulsively watchable, sometimes slow but never unrewarding. Some critics have shunned its fascinating storytelling abilities due to its lack of nuance — but Changeling is a movie about story, performance, and direction; it wants to compel, and that’s what it does. Directed and scored by Clint Eastwood with one eye on metallically shaded period style with the other on emotional subtlety, it’s cold but not oppressively so. Changeling lives in a world where the sun doesn’t shine, where justice needs to be served but comes at an aggravatingly slow pace. Eastwood sees where the story could deviate into various Lifetime movie directions and thankfully stays close to Christine Collins’s story, giving needed side-plot a spotlight only when the film really and truly needs it.
Angelina Jolie gives one of her greatest performances as a mother driven by pain but not blinded by it. She, plain and simply, wants her son back, but doesn’t lose her mind in the face of the maddening self-interest of the police. In another film, she might have suddenly ceased to becoming a victim of circumstance and turn into a powerhouse of revenge — but Straczynski’s screenplay never loses sight of the woman she was. The closing credits assure us that Collins never stopped looking for her child; that’s all she ever wanted to do, and if the LAPD hadn’t been so worried about themselves, the possibility of reunion could have held potential.
Changeling rides high on its outrage yet never loses sight of the Collins tragedy. Its mission to tell a story instead of a heavily cinematic one is impressive, and the combination of Eastwood and Jolie’s careful judgements make it all the more consuming. A-