On March 10, 1928, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie, "A Mighty Heart," "Wanted"), a telephone switchboard supervisor, was called into work on a Saturday. She told her 9-year-old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) they'd go to the promised movie the next day and that she would be home before dark. But when Christine arrived home there was no sign of Walter. Five months later the LAPD found him in Illinois and amidst a promotional media opportunity presented her with a boy she insisted was not her son, a "Changeling."
Multiple Oscar winning director Clint Eastwood ("Million Dollar Baby," "Letters from Iwo Jima") stumbles a bit with an unwieldy true story by former journalist J. Michael Straczynski (TV's "Murder She Wrote," "Babylon 5") that loses its emotional impact beneath too many story offshoots while ironically giving short shrift to a couple that warranted more. Star Jolie, who is introduced waking up with perfect hair and make-up, plays a symphony of grief in a role that she is perhaps too glamorous for.
Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan, "Come Early Morning," USA's "Burn Notice," who effects a slight Irish brogue and air of period toughness by letting his lower jaw drop so that his teeth do not overlap, a tactic which calls attention to itself) is the man who works with Collins and informs her her son is home but when after three weeks of argument she returns the kid she claims is lying (and who is also 3 inches shorter, and without the same teeth chart as her son, not to mention circumcised), he accuses her of trying to unload her son on the state and has her incarcerated in the County psychopathic ward on a "Code 12," a convenient catchall the corrupt cops used to shut people up, especially women. She's told the ropes by prostitute Carol Dexter (Amy Ryan, "Gone Baby Gone," TV's "The Office") and tries to play the treacherous game with sadistic Dr. Jonathan Steel (Denis O’Hare, "A Mighty Heart") and his steely-eyed nurses. Meanwhile, community activist Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich, "In the Line of Fire," in his typically weird, purse-lipped persona), who has been fighting the corruption of Police Chief James E. Davis (Colm Feore, "Chicago," "The Exorcism of Emily Rose") and his 'gun squad' on his radio broadcast and has taken an interest in Christine's case, shows up to demand her release just before she's subjected to shock treatment.
On a routine juvie case, Detective Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly, "Dawn of the Dead," HBO's "Generation Kill") travels to the Northcott ranch in Wineville, where he picks up 15-year-old Sanford Clark (Eddie Alderson, "Reservation Road," TV's "One Life to Live," a standout) for deportation to Canada, but Sanford has a hair raising tale to tell about the serial killer uncle, Gordon Stewart Northcott (Jason Butler Harner, "The Good Shepherd," HBO's "John Adams"), who's imprisoned him there and forced to participate in the murder and dismemberment of up to twenty young boys. He identifies Walter Collins's picture as one of them. The Chief tries to offer up Cpt. Jones 'mistake' to quiet the media, but Briegleb secures the pro-bono services of attorney S.S. Hahn (Geoff Pierson, "Get Smart," ShoTime's "Dexter") and bring Collins's case to the City Council welfare hearings. While fighting City Hall (in what will be a landmark case for reform), Christine must also deal with the murder trial of Northcott, who taunts her with the truth of her son's fate right up until his San Quentin execution.
Whew! And if all this seems a bit much, it is astonishing to recognize that much of the 'truth' which was ignored may have been more interesting that what was included. It is left ambiguous as to what led Arthur Hutchins (Devon Conti) to claim Collins as his mother, but in fact the boy devised the scheme for a free trip to Hollywood (paid for by Collins, not noted in the film) to meet Cowboy star Tom Mix and it was his confession that led to her release from the asylum. The Wineville (subsequently renamed Mira Loma) chicken coop murders were, in fact, a family affair as Gordon lived with his parents and sister and mom Louisa also ended up in San Quentin. Eastwood leaves Christine not only still hoping to find her son (a boy who had escaped and stayed on the run saw Walter also get away but did not know his fate), but betting on the 1935 Oscar winners and beginning a potential romance with supportive boss Ben Harris (Frank Wood, HBO's "The Flight of the Conchords," "Synecdoche, New York"). The fact that Collins died in 1935 is not even mentioned in the end credits. It should also be noted that the phrase 'serial killer' was not used until several decades later and Christine rushes off to the police station after hearing the Best Picture Oscar winning announcement in broad daylight.
There are some aspects of "Changeling," like Christine's following of her own advise to Walter to not 'ever start a fight, but always finish one,' that are fine to repeat, but there is too much back and forth on Walter's identity without enough examination of his eerily calm imposter. When Collins lands in the looney bin, there isn't a sympathetic look or voice lent her, every one of the staff a monstrous villain. The cross cutting between the police corruption investigation and Northcott's murder trail distracts from both (we're never given any background on the killer, just must assume he killed the kids after sexually molesting them). The film's first half's 'He's not my son!' gives way to 'Did you murder my son!' in the second, when Christine slaps Northcott around before condemning him to hell. (The mewling, noosed killer warbles "Silent Night," dropped from the platform right after singing 'mother and child' - for real?!)
Production values are sterling with director of photography Tom Stern ("Million Dollar Baby," "Things We Lost in the Fire") favoring the crane shots of the period and production designer James J. Murakami ("Letters from Iwo Jima") capturing details like the red trolley cars and suburban bungalows of the area, the sickly, washed out green of state institutions and the dusty, desolate Northcott ranch resembling the Manson gang's Spahn hangout crossed with the Texas Chainsaw's farmhouse. Costume designer Deborah Hopper ("Million Dollar Baby," "Mystic River") outfits Jolie in filmy, drop-waisted shifts of seafoam and aqua, brown coats and cloches with elaborate ornamentation and the sturdy, heeled shoes of the day (worn strapped into roller skates to survey the switchboard on the job!).
"Changeling" is certainly based on an interesting and complexly interwoven bit of L.A. history, but Eastwood fares better with a straight-through storyline, the cleanness of "Unforgiven" or "Million Dollar Baby" versus the lost depth of "Flags of Our Fathers." It's too over-stuffed and underfed and makes one wonder how it would have been served by "Chinatown's" Towne and Polanski.
Robin did not see this film.
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