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Changeling

starring Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich
written by J. Michael Straczynski & directed by Clint Eastwood
Rated R for some violent and disturbing content, and language.
94%

Christine Collins (Jolie) is a single mother working as a telephone operator in Los Angeles in 1928. Her life revolves around her young son Walter, and when he disappears from their home one quiet Saturday while she is covering someone else’s shift, she is devastated. Matters go from bad to worse when the police claim to have found her son in Illinois and bring her another boy claiming to be Walter. Christine is immediately certain that the boy does not belong to her, but the police are insistent. Soon it becomes apparent that Christine’s hope of finding the real Walter depends on her resolve to first convince a conspiracy of corrupt city officials that the case is not closed.

Changeling is a horror movie, an appalling, often-terrifying reenactment of an instance of institutional abuse that would strain audience credulity beyond the breaking point were it not based on true events. Truth truly is stranger than fiction, if only because it can afford to be. The film is difficult to watch, but impossible to look away from; an intense and immersive human drama told with skill and sympathy. Fans of Clint Eastwood’s other films will recognize and appreciate his familiar style immediately. The first thing the viewer notices about Changeling is its top-shelf production values. The film immediately evokes its setting with a stunning attention to detail that goes a long way towards establishing the plausibility of the account. It feels like we are in 1928 from the very beginning, and the film never really loses its sense of time and place.

The supporting cast is very strong. Don’t get me wrong, Angelina Jolie is great in the lead, reminding us why she won an Oscar eight years ago, but this is truly a group effort. Jeffrey Donovan, as Captain J.J. Jones, is creepily, callously, complacently evil in a way that I loved to hate. He walks a line so fine that it is never really clear whether he was deliberately deceptive or dismissively arrogant in his dealings with Christine. In contrast there is Michael Kelly’s heroic detective character, who uncovers a shocking truth and cannot bring himself to stay silent about it despite the insistence of his superior. And then there is the seemingly ubiquitous Amy Ryan, who just wrapped up her guest stint on “The Office” and who pops up here as a hooker that Christine meets in the psych ward. And the list goes on.

There is a particularly magnificent scene after Christine has been thrown unceremoniously into an asylum after she continues to publicly insist that the police have made a mistake. Having been warned that, regardless of how sane she tries to act, the doctor in charge will interpret her emotions as some sort of disorder, she sits nervously across the desk from him for an interview. He asks her questions, barely looking at her, and she attempts to answer them as normally as she can. He grunts and scribbles on his pad, then asks another question. Another answer, another grunt, more scribbling. The tension is fantastic, and when he goes on the attack, the point is well-made: almost anyone admitted to an asylum can be made to appear as though they belong there.

Eastwood winds up our emotions, particularly rage and frustration, beyond the breaking point until we are desperate for some sort of catharsis. This does finally arrive, but only partially. Justice may be done, but there can be no true comfort for the agony of this separation. Many of the loose ends are tied up as the movie slides past the two-hour mark, but the knots are loose and a little unsatisfying. Disorganized rather than neat, just like real life (which this is, of course, closely based on). This lack of “closure” (for lack of a better word) is a necessary weakness, but Changeling occasionally feels scattered in other respects as well, as though there were too much going on in the margins. Or perhaps as though the events taking place in the margins ought to be more central. The screenplay in general is excellent, despite the occasional misstep (for instance, the film’s final line is such a hopelessly-overused cliche that the spell was nearly broken).

There is also a completely mystifying scene near the end where Christine enters an Oscar pool at work, placing her bet on dark horse It Happened One Night to win Best Picture. She turns the radio up as the announcement is made, and squeals with glee to herself when her favorite takes the award. A few moments later, the phone rings and the film moves on, leaving us to wonder why the Oscars had a cameo. I will not assume that Eastwood or Jolie are dropping broad hints for the consideration of AMPAS. Perhaps this is merely an affectionate bit of nostalgia from a filmmaker who has made his own mark on Oscar history. Nevertheless, it is odd.

Changeling is riveting as a portrait of a time when sexism was ingrained in every facet of society, and it plays with that idea without making an easy, 20/20 hindsight condemnation. This is simply the way things were, way back when, and this is the sort of thing that happened as a result. I enjoy and appreciate the way Eastwood has of drawing these stories out and treating them with sensitivity, but also without pulling any of his punches. Changeling may not be the finest example of a Clint Eastwood film (it feels entirely too movie-like, which is partially a casting issue), but it is still a quality film and well-worth seeing.

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~ by Jared on October 31, 2008.

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