It's only appropriate that Changeling is being released on Halloween, for the real-life story on which it is based is as horrific as they come. Unfortunately, director Clint Eastwood can't move past his shock and incredulity over events that made a mockery of every value he seems to hold dear - honesty, justice, honor, conviction - and search for something deeper. The result is a film that plays like a creaking melodrama, with good guys and bad guys and precious little in between.
In 1928, after her young son, Walter, was discovered missing from their Los Angeles home, Christine Collins went to the police. Weeks later, relieved beyond words that her son had been found in far-off DeKalb, Ill., she went to the train station to meet him, only to discover the boy was not her son. Problem is, the L.A. police department refused to believe her, and when she kept insisting she knew better than it did, she got thrown into the local psychiatric ward. It wasn't until 10 days later, after the boy admitted his ruse and a serial child murderer turned up in the nearby town of Wineville, that Collins was released - and began to seek her justified revenge on the LAPD.
Angelina Jolie plays Collins, and part of the film's problem is that she's simply wrong for the role. Though game and committed, with a well-publicized mothering streak, she's too modern an actress to believably play someone from the 1920s, no matter how much they dowdy her up or how thick they lay on the pancake makeup.
Jolie plays Collins completely devoid of nuance, constantly resorting to either sullen blankness or shrill histrionics. Granted, her character goes through the emotional mill and isn't given much time to be contemplative. But Eastwood and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski (creator of TV's Babylon 5) clearly find something heroic in Collins, a heroism attributable to not just what she faced, but how she faced it. Jolie's performance, regrettably, hints at little beneath the surface.
Then again, that can be said of just about every performance in Changeling. Jeffrey Donovan, as a police captain more interested in closing the case than reuniting mother and son, and Colm Feore, as a corrupt LAPD police chief desperate for some good PR, put in strictly one-note performances. They're nasty and evil and mean, and we certainly despise them, to the point where they should be twirling their mustaches and cackling most of the time. And Dennis O'Hare, as the head psychiatrist, is strictly caricature, with a sadistic streak that makes Nurse Ratched look like Florence Nightingale.
John Malkovich, as a radio preacher who takes up Collins' cause as a way to rail against police corruption, spends most of his screen time scowling and glowering - something no actor does better. But rather than come across as comforting (to Collins) or reassuring (to the audience, desperate for someone with a functioning moral compass), he comes across as intimidating and scary.
As a director, Eastwood has a reputation for keeping things simple, for being quick and to the point. Doubtless that has served him well on films like Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, where he got to work with old pros like Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman. But perhaps a little more time for contemplation, for working through things and letting the actors stew a bit over their characterizations, might have helped here.
One of the few actors who manage to add some texture to their performances is Jason Butler Harner as Gordon Northcutt, the child murderer with issues you don't want to know about (but which Harner's harrowing performance suggests). There's also a welcome brief appearance by Amy Ryan, whose turn as a prostitute explaining survival in a psychiatric ward is one of the few scenes in the film guaranteed to rivet the audience's attention.
Of course, there should be plenty that's riveting about Changeling, but the film is simply too calculated, too obviously manipulated (and manipulative) for its own good. That extends even to the story's structure; for the first half, the film is a relentless downer, as Collins fights a system that clearly has the upper hand.
Then things are completely reversed in the second half, which is little more than a series of opportunities for her to gain the upper hand, and for the audience to cheer her on. Even with a running time of nearly 2 1/2 hours (which, to Eastwood's credit, moves along at a brisk pace), it's hard to avoid the feeling there should be more to this story than what made it on screen.
(Universal Pictures) Starring Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Rated R for language, violent and disturbing content. Time 141 minutes.