Film Reviews

Changeling Clint Eastwood

Rating - 7/10

Clint Eastwood’s autumnal years have been kind to cineastes. Since 2003’s Mystic River, Eastwood has embarked on creating a body of serious-minded, personal projects collectively defined by their visual bleakness and respective thematic insights into the welfare of children, the empowerment of women, institutional hypocrisy, cultural intolerance and the need to act according to one’s convictions. Filtered through his trademark economical style, many of these themes are evident in Eastwood’s latest period film, Changeling.

Based on actual events, the film concerns the plight of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a working single mother living in Los Angeles, who returns home one day from her job as a telephone operator to discover that her nine-year old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) has vanished. After a five-month search, the ailing police department informs Ms. Collins that her son has been found alive in DeKalb, Illinois. But there is a problem.

When Ms. Collins goes to collect her son at the train station, she ascertains that the boy simply is not hers. Fearing public embarassment, the police captain J.J Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) accompanying Christine to the station asks her to take the kid home on a trial basis. Confused and afraid, Christine brings the imposter into her home. Yet, the police’s mistake gnaws at her soul.

Privately, Christine collects physical evidence to confirm the boy is not of her flesh and blood. She is also assisted by Gustav Briegleb, a prominent Presbyterian minister (John Malkovich) who has waged a campaign against the corrupt Los Angeles police department for years on his radio program. Using his oratory skills, Briegleb enlists the support of those in his congregation for Christine’s cause. Nevertheless, Christine's crusade further agitates the police department. Rather than confronting their mistake, the department aim to suppress Christine and her story.

Culled from the real life Wineville Chicken Coop murders that engrossed Los Angeles in the late 1920’s, Changeling is a lushly crafted and meticulously detailed thriller built from J. Michael Straczynski’s impeccably researched script. The baroque visuals, perfectly accented through the muted palette of Tom Stern’s cinematography, provide a haunting Gothic tapestry to the surreal perversities of the factual events at hand.

In Changeling, Eastwood’s splintered narrative houses two distinct layers. The first segment, chronicling Collins’ search for her son is wrought with maternal selflessness. Jolie’s idealized, flawless mother is only concerned for the safety of her child, which perhaps limits a deeper investigation into her own psyche and weaknesses. The same can be said for Malkovich’s preacher, who rails against the arrogance and corruption within the Los Angeles Police Department. Christine’s case is an ideal platform for him, but we are not entirely privy to his agenda.

Operating concurrently with Collins’ harrowing quest, Changeling’s second tier focuses on the unravelling of the police department’s nerfarious smear campaign against Christine. Eastwood peels back the layers of corruption to reveal the broadness of its extensions: touching nearly every bureaucracy in the city’s municipal government. This section blends well with Eastwood’s overarching themes, but is far too stuffy in its superfluous final thirty minutes. Descending into a courtroom drama, Changeling’s rambling closing moments continue long after the film’s emotional and contextual pull has been expended. Consequently, the film’s overlong conclusion is static and moribund in its tone.

For all its expansiveness, Changeling is unquestionably a personal project in league with other entries in Eastwood’s late career renaissance. Thematically, the septagenerian director quietly rages in Changeling against the mistreatment of women and children by a dishonest and deceitful institutional body governed by male authority figures more concerned about maintaining power, than acting according to a moral code of ethics and standards.

The overall effect is sweeping, yet calm and steady. There are a few niggling issues such as the existence of anachronistic dialogue, but these do not denigrate from the film’s overall purpose. If Eastwood’s film has a major fault, it is easily located in the director’s desire to incorporate too many facets into his grand, old film. Thereupon, the film’s languid, leisurely slide in its latter stages spoils an otherwise peculiar slice of old-fashioned cinema.

A flawed gem.