The best Clint Eastwood films typically deal with people caught in complex, morally gray situations. The heroes of Unforgiven, Mystic River, and Million Dollar Baby are all faced with tough decisions and questions without easy answers. The man who made his legacy playing violent heroes in spaghetti westerns understands that sometimes good and bad can reside together in the same troubled soul. I mention this because the complexity and subtlety that has defined Eastwood's past masterpieces is missing from J. Michael Stracynski's screenplay for Changeling, a frustrating film which will have a life in theaters and for years to come thanks to one central, stunning performance, but is ultimately a wasted opportunity.
Based on a true story, Changeling is a dark, upsetting film about a woman who faced ultimate evil and corruption in 1920s Los Angeles. One day, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) was a happy, single mother living with her adorable son, Walter. After staying late at work unexpectedly, she came home to find him gone. The LAPD, headed by Chief James E. Davis (Colm Feore), a department was already stuck in a PR crisis for increasing corruption, couldn't handle the bad press of an unsolved missing child case, so they actually returned another orphaned child to Ms. Collins and tried to convince her that it was her son. Of course, Collins immediately knows that this new child is not hers - the difference in height and circumcision are pretty blatant signs - but Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) and the rest of the police force refuses to hear it. They bring in doctors to convince her that the trauma of whatever happened to him while he was gone may have changed her child physically and even suggests that Collins is trying to shirk her responsibilities as a mother by denying the return of her child. When Christine still refuses to call this little stranger her son, Jones has her committed to an asylum. Only the powerful radio figure Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) keeps Christine's case alive until the horrifying truth about what happened to Walter finally rises to the surface.
Everything that works about Changeling can be attributed to one person - Angelina Jolie. She nails a role that could have been all melodrama in the wrong hands. She plays Christine Collins as a confident yet cordial woman who says "please" and "thank you" even as she's going through a situation that would turn most people into swearing, screaming messes. She makes subtle, interesting decisions between scenes of great hysteria. Her take on Collins is a devoted, convicted woman but she does so in a way that only Jolie could.
But this underrated actress has to fight against a screenplay that not only gets repetitive at 141 minutes, but also paints everything in absolutes. Christine is absolute conviction. Briegleb is absolute support. Jones is absolute corruption. And another character is absolute evil. There are crucial scenes missing from this screenplay like any recognition that Jones and Davis must have known that they were doing something wrong. They're two-dimensional villains, which drains the piece of the dramatic energy that it should have. And when you realize that the film is going to be so clear-cut, the action starts to get soft like a TV movie of the week. The issue is this – there’s either a complex, character-driven mini-series in this long, complex true story OR a tight thriller about a missing child. Jolie made the first one and everyone else made the second, resulting in a mix of the two with black-and-white characters out of the thriller textbook surrounding only one central, believable performance.
There's also something off with the design of Changeling. It will probably land costume and design nominations because people often mistake elaborate for good, but something about the world of Changeling doesn't feel lived in. Too often I felt like I was looking at a back lot and not 1920s Los Angeles, watching a director who adored every old car and street scene without making them feel realistic. It's a precise and detailed film but perhaps too much so, leaving the grit and dirt of a more authentic looking design behind.
Changeling leaves me torn. Jolie has developed into one of the best actresses of her generation, and she makes so many great, subtle decisions in this film (there's a smile near the end that I adore because it's such a small gesture in a film of big, emotional, Oscar bait scenes) that she practically makes it worth seeing on her own. But she's the only one with even a modicum of subtlety in the entire film in front of or behind the camera. So, is a movie worthwhile for one performance or is it not worth your time because of the two-dimensional characters that surround it? It’s ironic that, as a critic, I’m stuck in a gray area of “up” or “down” regarding a film that deals too often in black and white.
Rating: TWO AND A HALF BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: October 24th, 2008
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Jeffrey Donovan, John Malkovich, and Colm Feore
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: J. Michael Straczynski