Do you ever have that dream
Where you open your mouth and try to scream
But you can’t make a sound
That’s every day starting now
That’s every day starting now…
–Ani Difranco, “Wish I May”
This must be what it feels like to be Angelina Jolie in “Changeling.” Her eight year old son disappears, which is enough in itself to make anyone mother scream herself hoarse. The police tell her she can’t even file a report for 24 hours, because “99 times out of a hundred, the kid finds his way home.” Then, when they finally do start looking for him, sure enough they find him – or, at least, they find someone willing to pretend to be him, in order to get a free ride to Hollywood and a chance to meet some movie stars.
This is where the screaming begins.
Set in Los Angeles in 1928, “Changeling” is based on the true story Christine Collins and her boy Walter. Several months after reporting her son missing, the LAPD told her they had found him in the company of a drifter in Illinois. They staged a big, teary reunion, convinced her to take the boy home despite her protestations that he wasn’t her son, and, when she continued to protest, brought in “experts” to explain how he could possibly have dramatically changed in appearance, shrunk several inches and been circumcised without remembering the event while he was gone. She continued to protest, so they declared her psychotic and locked her away for good. Case closed.
The first half of “Changeling” plays like a paranoid fantasy, like “The Forgotten” in period costume. It would not be a stretch to set this story in the near future and call it a cautionary tale. As Jolie bounces from one Male Authority Figure to another, director Clint Eastwood establishes a consistent tone: each of them treat her with the same kind of aggressive anticipation: they establish “the facts” so that all she can do is contradict them, they put words in her mouth, they make her choose between two falsehoods. In a movie about the absolute oppression and silencing of a woman, it is the men who seem constantly afraid – afraid of what might happen if she is actually allowed to speak her mind.
John Malkovich plays a radio preacher who makes it his job to announce the corruption and brutality of the LAPD. When he hears of Collins’ complaints, he makes moves to help her out, perhaps sensing that this case might garner enough publicity to actually bring about some change, or perhaps just realizing that he has an obligation to plead the case of the widow and orphan (Isaiah 1:17.) It is Malkovich who springs her from the psycho ward; and thank God. Without him, it seemed to easy to believe that she would remain there until they had shocked her brain away for good.
“Changeling” is a movie about the police doing everything they can – that is, everything they can do to garner good publicity and to make people with real problems go away and leave them alone. They do next to nothing to actually fight crime, solve cases, or do justice. In the middle of “The Changeling” is a brutal serial killer who kidnaps little boys, drives them out to a chicken farm on the edge of town, and brutally murders him there. When he is caught, a reporter asks him how he’d evaded arrest for so long. “Never knew anybody was looking for me,” he remarks. That’s because no one was.
As a director, Clint Eastwood always makes morally, thematically interesting films, even if his technique and storytelling are a little sloppy. In the second half of “Changeling,” Eastwood overreaches; he wants to compare the apprehension and trial of a sick and twisted serial killer with the apprehension and trial of a corrupt police chief, and ask us which is worse. Thematically, it’s a compelling question. Cinematically, it’s a train wreck. The movie loses steam and energy as it moves further and further away from its climax without ever approaching resolution; there’s a confusing parallel-court scene and an overwrought execution scene straight from “Dead Man Walking” or “Capote.” Eastwood needed a firm, ruthless editor who could remind him which story was the main one, but didn’t have that person on the payroll. It’s a relief when “Changeling” regains its footing for its final ten minutes; it ends with a bang that might help you to forget the sloppiness of its last hour.
- To fans of Clint Eastwood’s past efforts (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, etc.)
- To feminists, and anyone who enjoyed “The Duchess.”
- If you like movies that ask big questions, even if they do so sloppily.
- If you’re a budding screenwriter, and would like to see an example of a story that would definitely benefit from non-chronological storytelling.
- If you think “Angelina Jolie” and you think tight and scant clothing, dominatrix attitude, etc.
- If “the Duchess” was all the female misery you can take for now.
- If you don’t like movies that feel longer than they are.
- If you’re tired of police – particularly LAPD – getting a bad rap in the movies.
The song quoted at the top of the review is from Ani Difranco’s album “To The Teeth” and is used entirely without permission.