The bones for the story of Changeling, the twenty-eighth film from director Clint Eastwood, are borrowed from the infamous Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, a kidnapping and murder case from late 1920s Los Angeles. The sensational child murder case made headlines around the world, shining a spotlight on police corruption by the LAPD and making a media star of Canadian-born serial killer Gordon Stewart Northcott. Eastwood personalizes the story by focusing on the mother of one of the victims, Christine Collins (a goth looking Angelina Jolie).
Changeling’s twisted tale picks up steam when single mom Collins comes home after working some overtime hours to an empty house. Her ten-year-old son Walter is gone without a trace; the front door is locked, his lunch is still in the ice box and his bed undisturbed.
Cut to five months later. The LAPD gives Collins the happy news that they have located her son and that he is alive and well. Trouble is the boy they bring home is not her son. When she protests the police, concerned for the bad press her story would generate, try and convince then coerce her to accept the boy. When she refuses they have her committed to a mental hospital that makes Shock Corridor look like a hotel spa. Luckily she has anti-police corruption crusader Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) on her side. With his help Collins exposes the LAPD cover-up and corruption and tries to get to the bottom of what actually happened to her son.
At two hours and twenty minutes Changeling takes its time to tell the story, expertly weaving the disparate elements—the disappearance, the police corruption and the unexpected serial killer angle—into one seamless, elegantly directed movie. It’s a complex story but one that is carefully laid it out, and while it would likely have been possible to trim a few of the “I want my son back!!” scenes, by and large there isn’t any fat here.
Eastwood sets the tone in the film’s opening seconds by draining the picture of any bright colors. This bleak palate—at odds with sunny California’s sparkling reputation—establishes the somber feel that permeates every scene.
Angelina Jolie’s resemblance to Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride embodies that gloomy feel; her face a sallow shell of the usually beautiful woman caught by paparazzi in the pages of Us Weekly. She’s in almost every scene of the film, delivering strong work as a mother who refuses to give up hope, but for every powerful Oscar bait moment there is another where she veers toward melodrama, relying a bit too heavily on the silent movie five poses of female subjugation technique. The delicate hand clutching at her mouth in despair is effective once, but on repeated use loses impact. It’s a performance that ranges from moving to shrill, but, nonetheless, will likely be nominated come Academy Award time.
Of the other above–the-title cast members Amy Ryan hands in solid work in her small role as a wrongly imprisoned prostitute and John Malkovich is showy, but just a bit too creepy as the fiery Rev. Briegleb. Of the new comers Eddie Alderson does stand-out work as a teen wracked with guilt while regular Law and Order guest star Jeffrey Donovan is suitably evil as Capt. J.J. Jones, the scheming and manipulative policeman.
Changeling often succeeds more as a portrait of a time and place—the recreation of 1920s Los Angeles is breathtaking, and the misogynistic attitude toward women makes the males on Mad Men seem enlightened—rather than a true-life crime drama, but despite its tendency toward melodrama Eastwood has created the first big movie of Oscar season.