Changeling” is a wonderful movie about a horrifying story.
Dispensing with the usual disclaimers of “Based
on...” or “Inspired by...” a screen note up front simply states “A true
story.” So naturally I hared off to Google to see what I could find
about the original story. After reading several accounts of the
circumstances of a mother's search for her kidnapped son, I concluded
that the movie does in fact adhere fairly closely to the history, while
at the same time being, you know, a movie.
Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, researched the
case for a year in city and newspaper archives, and it's a compelling
one, that held the nation's interest for almost a year before the Great
Depression demanded attention.
In 1928 a single mother's nine-year old son was
kidnapped in Los Angeles. After an initial police department brush-off,
the LAPD spent several months going through the motions of a search,
and eventually came up with the wrong kid. The police were so eager to
have some positive publicity (the department was chockablock with
corruption) that they railroaded the mother, Christine Collins, into
accepting the young cuckoo as her Walter.
When Christine repeatedly brought proof to them of
their mistake – the kid was three inches shorter, and circumcised – the
police captain, J.J. Jones, began hurling counterattacks, accusing
Christine of being irresponsible and mentally incompetent.
Eventually Jones had Christine committed to the LA
County Hospital's Psychopathic Ward, where she was threatened with
electroshock treatments if she refused to sign a retraction.
Fortunately a crusading local Presbyterian minister,
Gustav Briegleb, had befriended Christine and mounted a search for her.
Meanwhile (and that does sound like a clumsy plot
point, doesn't it?), another police detective searched the boonies in
Riverside County on an immigration case, a kid who'd entered the
country illegally from Canada. What he discovered was the horror of a
serial killer, Gordon Northcott, who used his young cousin as a decoy
when he kidnapped young boys all over Southern California and
subsequently dismembered them.
You will require no further details to see how the
two cases intersect, but they do so with some surprising repercussions
and ramifications, which, if you're interested, you could research
Or you could see the movie, which I highly recommend.
Thirty years ago, when he was pretty much identified
with Dirty Harry, who knew that I would one day think that Clint
Eastwood might be my favorite filmmaker. Directing “The Changeling” he
builds on the strengths he showed in “Million Dollar Baby” and “Mystic
River,” which are mostly, I think, a talent for telling a powerful
“The Changeling” opens with an establishing shot of
an impossibly tree-filled Los Angeles in 1928. The shot's in black and
white, because that's what all the photos we've seen from that era are
in, and only gradually do washes of color fade in until we're in a
pale, pale world where Christina's lips are almost unbearably crimson.
This trick has been used a lot recently,
particularly in films based on graphic novels, such as “Sin City,” buy
here it's subtle enough that it quickly ceases to be a gimmick and
becomes the natural world that these people inhabit, as well as the
natural world of our own memories.
Because Eastwood performs an interesting feat with
this movie: he seems to jump about from nightmare to nightmare, as
memories sometimes do, but he manages to do this by unfolding the story
he was given at a stately pace that is frequently somber but never
Eastwood is a famously kind director, if that's the
word I want. He's not a micro-director, the kind who choreographs
eyebrows, and he tends to be satisfied with early takes, as long as
they're the best. He must inspire his actors to an uncommon degree.
His work with two of the main characters is an
exercise in playing against type. Angelina Jolie, more famous for her
performances in supermarket tabloids, has come a long way since she
raided tombs as Lara Croft.
As Christine Collins she turns in a subtly contoured
performance that never shades over into melodrama. As a persecuted
woman she is emotionally and verbally overwhelmed by the male bullies
around her, but she quietly keeps insisting on her rightness until a
streetwalker who's also in the psych ward on false police charges (a
great cameo from Amy Ryan) teaches her what's really going on, and to
stand up for herself.
You don't exactly expect John Malkovich as the
Reverend Briegleb to kick someone in the stomach, but Malkovich cannot
entirely shake his villainous image. It's apparent from the outset that
the Reverend is using Christine as a tool in his campaign against civic
corruption; in fact he doesn't discard Christine, but continues his
support for her by persuading crusading lawyer Sammy Hahn (Geoff
Pierson) to take up her defense pro bono. Hahn's handling of
Christine's case led to the overturning of imprisonment and psychiatric
confinement under Code 12, a catch-all term that covered anyone who
"dissented, protested, caused trouble or objected" to police methods.
An important part of Eastwood's contribution to
several of his movies has been his own music on the soundtrack. As a
composer Eastwood will never equal Max Steiner or Elmer Bernstein, but
he has a solid command of musical idiom, and a subtle ear for the kind
of music that reinforces his vision.
This may not be the best movie of the year, but
it'll do until the best one comes along.