CHANGELING centers on Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie in a career best performance), a single mother of a ten year old son, Walter, who works as a supervisor at the Los Angeles telephone company. Collins goes to work one Saturday after a shortage of staff is reported at her office. Left with nobody to watch Walter, she tells him to stay inside and if he is to go outside, to stay close to their house. They live in a seemingly safe neighborhood and there are a few neighbors who could serve as help if Walter needed any assistance. When Christine comes home from work, Walter is missing. She frantically starts to look for him around her neighborhood but he’s gone. Without a trace. The police offer no initial help; they tell Christine that little kids often disappear from their homes and then always return a few hours later. They can’t step in until someone’s been missing for more than a day. Five months go by and Walter still hasn’t shown up and the police have no solid leads. Then, the duplicitous Captain J.J. Jones (an evil Jeffrey Donovan) makes an announcement: Walter has been found. He has Christine meet him at the train station so that she can be reunited with her son. But upon arriving at the station and seeing the boy that the police claim is Walter, Christine immediately knows that something isn’t right. This child isn’t Walter. She’s positive of that fact. Jones, fearing further embarrassment for his force, tells Christine that she’s mistaken and that the boy is definitely Walter. Jones tells Christine to take the boy home and just “try him out.” Confused, scared, and totally unsure of herself, Christine heads home with the boy, even though she knows in her heart that it’s not Walter.
But where is Walter and what happened to him? That answer, while not conclusive, appears to be connected to a string of child abductions and murders at a chicken ranch in Wineville, CA, just outside of L.A. city limits. An honest cop named Lester Ybarra (an excellent Michael Kelly) stumbles upon the chicken ranch and is confronted with a twitchy boy who has a dark story to share with him. From this point in the narrative, CHANGELING bounces back and forth between Collins’ dogged determination to find out the truth about her son to the extremely unsettling unraveling of a potential serial killer named Gordon Northcott (the terrifying Jason Butler Harner). Christine, who is sick of the complacency and lies of the L.A. police force, continually challenges them on the work they’re doing and how they don’t care about helping her find her son. Seeing her as a nuisance, Jones, along with the slimy Chief of Police Davis (the always welcome Colm Feore), throws Christine in a mental institution. Threatened with electro-shock therapy if she doesn’t behave, Christine becomes a character straight out of a Kafka-esque nightmare. She knows she’s right but everyone around her seems to be against her. But not the crusading Reverend Gustav Briegleb (a fine John Malkovich), who spends much of his time lambasting the L.A. police force for murderous practices and general ill-will. He demands to know where the police have sent Christine and he makes it his mission to get her out of custody.
I shall say no more about the plot or where this story goes as I want you to discover all of the surprises and twists that I did. This is a somber, painful story to take in at times. The idea that a woman like Collins would receive the treatment that she did is downright despicable and hard to accept. The way that the police just shrugged her off was inexcusable, not to mention the disregard they showed Collins by throwing her – unfairly – into an insane asylum. But what makes CHANGELING watchable even in its darkest moments is Jolie’s startling and truly mesmerizing performance. I have never been a huge fan of Jolie. She’s worked best for me as an action hero; she is, in my opinion, the only major actress who doesn’t look silly when brandishing two guns and kicking ass, as she has in glossy entertainments like WANTED and MR. & MRS. SMITH. I was somewhat let down by her work in last year’s similarly themed A MIGHTY HEART, where she played murdered journalist Daniel Pearl’s grieving wife. There she seemed too self-conscious of the material and a little too practiced. But in CHANGELING, Jolie has the character and the material to totally convince as a mother driven to her breaking point. Jolie is an extremely contemporary actress and celebrity, so initially, I wasn’t sure I’d buy her in period costume and attitude. She really proved that she’s got the acting chops; it’s an Oscar worthy performance. Every single performance in the film hits all the right notes, but Jolie tears her way through this epic story and the results are nothing less than devastating by the end of the film.
Eastwood has crafted a gorgeous yet menacing reimagining of Los Angeles in the early 1930’s. Tom Stern’s slightly muted but painterly cinematography balances perfectly with the fluid, unfussy editing rhythms of Joel Cox and Gary Roach. Eastwood, as usual, serves as composer on the film, working in a simple yet elegant musical score with more than a few haunting cues that amp up some of the films more frightening sequences. Getting a chance to see old Los Angeles up on the big screen is a treat and with someone like Eastwood calling the shots, you know that no expense has been spared. Just wait until you see the amazing final shot of the film. Next to his back-to-back war epics, CHANGELING is the most physically demanding picture that Eastwood has tackled. The film is as beautifully mounted as it is sensitively observed, a testament to Eastwood’s strength as a filmmaker in that he’s able to pay attention to both the big and the small details that set his films apart from most others. And the fact that the story is all true makes it even harder to forget or ignore.
CHANGELING is an emotionally demanding (and draining) film that takes the viewer on a trip to an era where women were treated as third class citizens and had to fight for the truth and for what they believed in. It’s disturbing to think that women were treated like this just 75 years ago in this country. Jolie, who I was initially hesitant about in the lead role, pulls out all the stops in her work as Christine, a woman who would never settle for anything less than the truth about the fate of her son. Eastwood finds honest compassion for Christine and never allows his film to go over the top or become overly sentimental. This is a hard film to watch on more than one occasion, but thanks to Eastwood’s masterly grip of storytelling and confident technique, he’s made one of the best pictures of the year.