Now She’s Feeling More Alone Than She Ever Has Before
Changeling / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | October 31, 2008 | Comments ()
Clint Eastwood has been directing films since the early 1970s, but it’s only in the past few years that his name has come to represent a specific brand or mindset when it comes to storytelling: You know that, with an Eastwood film, you’re going to get something austere, old-school, and pretty straightforward. The man makes gorgeous, fastidious movies that hit all the beats in a fairly predictable order, but that devotion to an economical, often subdued style tends to make the stories somehow a bit too simple for such a gifted director. It’s no accident that the best films of his later period — from 1992’s Unforgiven to 2003’s Mystic River — deal with moral complexity and narrative ambiguity in a way that often eludes his other films; though they’re still competent, thoughtful, and well-made, they lack the thrust of greatness. That’s the unfortunate case with Eastwood’s latest, Changeling, a sprawling and well-acted drama that nevertheless comes down a little too firmly in its moral certainty and the alignment of good versus evil, and in doing so sacrifices a compelling story for a merely interesting one. It’s not that the film is a failure; it’s just that the film winds up falling short of that standard Eastwood has so clearly set for himself.
After a brief title sequence that culminates with the phrase, “A true story,” Eastwood’s film opens in 1928 Los Angeles, where Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) is a single mother working to raise her 9-year-old, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), while holding down a managerial job at Pacific Telephone and Telegraph. Eastwood’s attention to detail is evident from the beginning, from the cable cars to the use of older L.A. neighborhoods and sets to create a period atmosphere, and the colors are all washed out like old photographs. The formal and unflashy framing from director of photography Tom Stern, who’s worked with Eastwood many times, helps set the mood of cold quality, of a good story that’s still got a layer of emotion removed. Christine is a strong but quiet woman who loves her son, but when she’s called into the office on her day off, she has to leave him home alone for a few hours, and she returns to find that he’s gone. Jolie is wonderful and more than a little heartbreaking in these first few hours after Walter’s disappearance, as her demeanor slides from worry to despair to barely restrained panic; the phone call she makes to the police to report Walter, only to be told that she has to wait 24 hours before a report can be filed, is gut-wrenching.
But this is also where the film begins to chart its course through relatively clear waters when it comes to the plight of Christine and her fight against fate and the world around her. After months of searching, the LAPD receives a tip about a boy in Illinois that matches Walter’s description and has the kid shipped home. They proudly present him to Christine, but she knows instantly that the boy isn’t her son. Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), a hard-driving man who doesn’t want to see the department face any more public scrutiny after a rash of public relations problems, assures Christine that she’s just in shock and should take the boy on a “trial basis.” Jones is written and played as a department toady and total ass, and while it’s not likely (or even necessary) he’d ever be a likeable character, it’s still the first of many instances in which the film shores up any doubt or conflict on Christine’s part. She refuses to acknowledge the boy is hers, though she takes him in for a while in order to try and figure out a way to prove it to a police force that seems more and more monolithically evil instead of believably corrupt.
The rest of the film meanders among the disparate plots of Christine’s ongoing crusade to keep the police looking for her son; the LAPD’s continued refusal to grant Christine any kind of hearing or say in the matter; and a public outcry against the department’s tyranny led by the Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) from St. Paul’s Presbyterian. J. Michael Straczynski’s screenplay is phenomenally researched, so much so that the film rightly earns its title as a true story instead of merely being based on one, but there’s a lack of suspense permeating the film that’s almost maddening. It’s not as if Eastwood isn’t able to technically balance the storylines: He does, and the best one involves a detective named Lester Ybarrra (Michael Kelly) who pursues his own angle in the Collins case. It’s just that by making Jones and the various cop cronies so blandly bad, he can’t capitalize on Christine’s genuine good. Worse, he passes up a real chance to investigate the paranoia Christine must have felt not when her world fell apart but when the authorities told her it had been put back together. She has only one confrontation with her replacement son in which she asks him who he is and where he came from, but she never goes further than that, and she additionally avoids any kind of “mission” against the police, despite the fact that they’re painting her as a lying and unstable woman in the press. It’s not that Christine doesn’t fight; it’s that she doesn’t seem concerned with the right enemy.
Charged with carrying the film, Jolie is admirably tough and resilient in the role, though she looks more drawn and gaunt than ever, almost skeletal and certainly more worn than her 33 years. Everyone else in the film lands squarely within a comfortable zone of performances that feel real enough to give the film credibility but not genuine enough to bring the characters to life. The good guys and the bad are easy to spot and never forced to do much. At one point it feels like Walter’s disappearance is just a Macguffin to let Eastwood casually explore a time period he still thinks on fondly, and that’s not enough to make the movie worth it. It doesn’t even feel possible to damn the film with faint praise, since Eastwood the technician is still in fine form, from the cross-cutting in certain flashbacks or montages to the way he clearly takes pleasure in the textures of certain shots, like one in which a series of umbrellas deflect the rain. That’s probably the best way to summarize the film: Eastwood throws a lot of plot and emotion at the screen, but he also throws up enough of a shield to keep anything from truly connecting.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.
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