The black-and-white studio logo and opening shots that kick off Changeling are a harbinger of things to come, which is to say Clint Eastwood has once again delivered a confident, sophisticated, well-made drama devoid of any subtext or thematic complexity.
Looking over his last half dozen or so films, it's clear that Eastwood's less interested in probing characters and stories and more interested in creating striking tableaux and meaty melodrama. While Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby and Flags of Our Fathers have all drawn accolades for a regal approach to complex material, they mostly benefit from Eastwood's disciplined focus on intelligent writing and impeccable performances. Scratch beneath their well-cultivated surfaces and these films lack the complexity you'd expect from weighty subjects. In many ways, the movies are a reflection of Eastwood's approach to acting: measured, understated, straightforward and muscular. Only Letters From Iwo Jima, which attempted existential resonance, came close to the introspection of his critically lauded Unforgiven. Unfortunately, the affectations that once worked so well for him — artfully restrained distance from volatile material — end up undermining Changeling.
In a story that feels like James Ellroy should have written it, Angelina Jolie plays Christine Collins, a 1920s single mom and phone-company supervisor in Los Angeles who comes home late from work one evening and discovers her 9-year-old son Walter is missing. At first, the police are indifferent, but suffering from mounting public distrust, they find the boy five months after his disappearance and reunite mother and son in a highly publicized event. The only trouble is that the child isn't Christine's son. Instead of admitting their mistake, however, the LAPD embarks on a campaign to convince Christine that she is mistaken and, when that doesn't work, locks her away as mentally unstable. Her plight attracts the attention of a radio preacher (John Malkovich) determined to bring down the police force's culture of corruption.
Drawing from a real-life event, screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5) provides lots of clip-worthy scenes (tailor-made for the Oscars?) in a convoluted, dramatically inert story. While he and Eastwood are clearly hoping to land in the company of mythological masterworks like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential, they fail to create a believable world. There's murder, deceit, courtroom showdowns, a trip to a psycho ward and even a final death-row confrontation, and yet the movie, even with its endless epilogues, is unable to articulate a meaningful conclusion. For a true-life tale (unlike fictional Chinatown and L.A. Confidential) it doesn't feel real. Worse, it's hard to discern what attracted Eastwood to the material because he doesn't have anything to say.
But it's very obvious what brought Jolie to the table. Weeping and trembling her way through scene after scene, the actress is determined to become an icon of suffering for the Motion Picture Academy. While she hammers home Christine's steely self-possessed suffering it feels like Jolie's playing the film's moments rather than a flesh-and-blood person. Eastwood, normally so good with actors, is unable to modulate her performance and find nuance. We're never fully drawn into the story because, ultimately, Christine feels more construct than character.
While Amy Ryan briefly throws sparks as a fellow hospital inmate and Jason Butler Harner disturbs as a child murderer who pops up in the movie's second half, the rest of Eastwood's cast feels like pawns moved around a chessboard. They neither register as people or metaphors as they stand around reacting to Jolie's endless tears. You know the direction has gone off the rails when John Malkovich is the least interesting actor on screen
Changeling can't be accused of being dull but never engages the way it should. Despite its sensationalistic tale of corruption, loss and maternal triumph, the film struggles for relevancy. There are a few riveting scenes, some beautiful composed shots, and even a rousing moment or two but it doesn't add up to much more than a Lifetime movie on steroids. The Academy will love it.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.