In 2003, Clint Eastwood began a late-career resurgence directing the brilliant Mystic River, but his subsequent films have been a mixture of compelling content and uneven scripting. Million Dollar Baby (2004), which seemed at first to be just another conventional sports drama, addressed a relevant, complex subject, but it lacked the nuance that its content required. The one-two punch of Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (both 2006) attempted to make the black-and-white distinctions between ally and enemy a little grayer, but the former was a narrative and tonal mess and the latter, while far superior, moved at a snail’s pace. Changeling is no doubt prone to many of the same old Eastwood problems, but with one significant difference: it’s damn entertaining.
From a script by television writer J. Michael Straczynski and based on a true event, Changeling takes place in late-1920s Los Angeles and centers on Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single working mother in an era when mothers (single or not) were vocally frowned upon for working. Christine has a perfectly functional presence in her son’s life while being able to adequately provide for them both, and she does so without a hint of self-pity. When Christine comes home from work one day to find her son missing, she files a missing persons report with the LAPD. After months of investigation, they finally return to her with a boy in tow. But there’s a problem: the boy the police have retrieved is not her son. After a moment of shock Christine reluctantly takes the boy home, but once it becomes clear that he is being used as means for the LAPD to save face in such a highly publicized investigation, Christine meets up with Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who uses Christine’s case as an opportunity to weed out corruption in the historically corrupt LAPD. (In this respect, the film has been compared—albeit unfairly—to L.A. Confidential.)
The majority of Changeling then oscillates between a quest for public justice in the face of organized corruption and an investigation into the dark side of the human spirit that may uncover the whereabouts of Christine’s son. Christine never positions herself as a moral crusader—she only wants to be reunited with her son; she makes this goal clear because almost every other line she delivers is some variation on “I just want my son.” It is in this respect that Eastwood forgoes the Shakespearean gray areas he explored in Mystic River for a narrative stark in its one-dimensionality: never once does the film question Christine’s moral superiority or the LAPD’s inhumanity. The characters, then, fall in two diametrically opposed categories: those selflessly helping Christine in the name of justice, and those in power looking to silence a hysterical woman who has “forgotten her place” in a male-dominated society. With this simplicity, the film misses several opportunities to develop potentially fascinating stories, never entertaining the idea, for instance, of Rev. Briegleb’s use of Christine as political opportunism.
Unlike Eastwood’s past three films, however, Changeling’s script is Paul Haggis-free, so while everything is black-and-white in a typically Hollywood way, it can’t be said to be pretending that it’s anything more. Eastwood is an undeniably skilled director, so Changeling, while a simpler film than critics and audiences are being led to believe, is incredibly well made. Eastwood is able to lock the audience into his particular view of a world that is eighty years past, and while there may be occasional laughs at some of its clichés and contrivances, it is magnetically engaging. A lesser director might have made some of this material seem as transparent as it is, but Eastwood adeptly draws us into the drama, and we forgive its missteps along the way. Many of the film’s platitudes won’t be apparent until the experience wears off some time after you’ve left the theater.
Though Changeling clocks in at 140 minutes, it hardly ever feels slow. The film’s conventional three-act narrative moves briskly forward and doesn’t feel prolonged until the very end when we’re presented with several false endings (and the real ending is hardly the most powerful of all possible places for the film to finish). Eastwood regular Tom Stern’s photography is characteristically muted, but doesn’t quite go to the monochromatic extreme of the Iwo Jima films, allowing reds and greens to vividly pop out from a palette characterized mostly by desaturated shades of blue.
Jolie immerses herself into her character and the setting aptly, though her performance does occasionally flirt with melodrama. The film’s weakest link is Jeffrey Donovan, playing the police captain responsible for the investigation of Christine’s son. His accent is an annoying, inconsistent pendulum swinging back and forth between Irish-American and 1920s gangster parody. Donovan makes the captain far more of a caricature than he was probably written to be. This is most apparent in the critical scene where the police captain convinces Christine to take home a strange boy and call him her son; he avoids any of the delicate nuances necessary to make the scene believable.
If this film has one stand out performance, it is Jason Butler Harner as a serial killer who may or may not be involved in Christine’s son’s disappearance. In a role that could have easily devolved into self-parody, Harner approaches the character with an interesting combination of unassuming small-town swagger and unnerving charisma that reads eerily reminiscent of M. Emmet Walsh in the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple (1984). His character’s fate provides the film’s only hints of gray.
Deserved or not, Changeling will likely be approached handily by Mr. Oscar at the end of the year. And whether or not Changeling’s subject matter really warrants self-congratulation by the industry, it’s about time a Hollywood film dealt with sexism so bluntly. Hollywood has made so many simplistic, filtered films about victory over adversity in the form of racism in historical settings, isn’t it about time for the issue of sexism to get a similarly one-dimensional treatment?
© 2008 Landon Palmer. All rights reserved.
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