It’s a wonder the Christine Collins story, with its layers of cruelty, corruption and sudden, bloody horror, has gone unexplored by filmmakers for the last 80 years. Now, finally exhumed from moldering Los Angeles municipal archives by writer J. Michael Straczynski, this previously untold tale is the basis of Clint Eastwood’s powerfully disturbing new movie, “Changeling” — the latest peak in his 37-year directing career.
Working with a longtime collaborative team that includes cinematographer Tom Stern and production designer James J. Murakami, Eastwood has given the picture a creamy period look, with rich shades of brown and muted blues, which perfectly encircles and sets off the terrible events at the center of the story. And his recreation of a long-gone L.A., with vintage skyline and streets arrayed with red trolleys and rickety automobiles, is a small marvel in itself.
The year is 1928. Collins (Angelina Jolie), a switchboard supervisor and single mother, returns home one afternoon to find that her nine-year-old son, Walter, has disappeared. The LAPD, notorious at the time for its brazen racketeering and for shooting down citizens with impunity, dawdles for four months, while public indignation, stoked by a fiery radio minister named Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), angrily mounts. Then, suddenly, the captain in charge of the case, a smarmy martinet named J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), announces that Walter has been found, in DeKalb, Illinois. The boy (Devon Conti) is brought back to Los Angeles, but as soon as he steps down off the train, with a sly, conniving grin on his face, Collins realizes that he’s not her child. Unnamed “experts,” however, have determined that he is, and Jones condescendingly tells her to take the boy home and “try him out for a couple of weeks.”
Backed up by Briegleb, Collins continues to protest the authorities’ cruel incompetence, creating a public scandal so embarrassing to the police that they invoke a self-invented rule called “Code 12,” which allows them to consign anyone who annoys them (mainly women) to the county insane asylum, where they’re plied with drugs and electro-shock sessions until they come to their senses and shut up. The asylum is a hellacious place, of course, but Eastwood doesn’t overplay it (we’re not quite in Frances Farmer territory here). It’s presided over by an unfeeling doctor (Denis O’Hare) who’s clearly on the cops’ payroll, and patrolled by an examining nurse (scary Riki Lindhome) whose glowering face is an icon of icy indifference. Collins finds an ally here, though, a prostitute named Carol (Amy Ryan, excellent yet again), who made the mistake of filing brutality charges against a client who turned out to be a cop. Carol gives Collins the lowdown on life in the bin. “You gotta do everything you can to look normal,” she says. “If you smile too much, you’re delusional; if you don’t smile, you’re depressed.” Collins is offered the chance to be released from the asylum if she’ll just sign a statement absolving the police of any blame in her case. She turns it down.
Meanwhile, a police detective named Ybarra (Michael Kelly), possibly the only straight cop on the force, is investigating the disappearance of a number of other boys about 60 miles away in rural Wineville. Soon, at a godforsaken chicken ranch, Ybarra comes to believe that he’s found little Walter Collins, too. Here the movie takes an unexpected turn into terrifying depravity, played out in flashbacks. Eastwood stages these jolting scenes with extraordinary control: They’re not completely graphic, but they have a brutal, gory psychological power, made all the more unsettling by the man perpetrating them, a smiling hayseed lunatic named Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner).
“Changeling” is a wonderfully well-made picture. It’s borderline grim and, in the second half, spiked with really wrenching shocks; but it draws you in from the quiet beginning, and holds you all the way through to its frightful and beautifully edited conclusion. (The editors, Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach, are also old Eastwood hands.) The actors are impeccable, resisting at all turns the showiness that the material invites. Jolie once again surmounts the burden of her fame and beauty to portray Collins, not as a before-her-time feminist crusader (although that’s a motif the movie attempts to impose a little too emphatically), but as a woman who simply, stubbornly won’t back down in pursuit of her lost child. Malkovich’s character is little more than an angel of vengeance, but with his marcelled hairpiece and his air of pinched concern, we’re always happy to see him intervene in the distressing proceedings, as we are whenever Kelly’s staunch investigator takes over a scene. Eastwood also elicits exceptional performances from the film’s juvenile actors, especially Eddie Alderson as the tormented kid who finally blows the whistle on the abominations being perpetrated at the chicken ranch.
The movie feels a little long at two hours and 20 minutes, and after a while you may grow weary of hearing Jolie cry out (well after you’ve gotten the point), “He’s not my child!” There’s an ambiguous lack of resolution at the end, too. Collins’ search for her little boy never really ended. However, the facts of the case are laid out in such a way that we’re pretty certain that we have an answer, even if this indomitable mom refuses to accept it.
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