A thematic companion piece to “Mystic River” but more complex and far-reaching, “Changeling” impressively continues Clint Eastwood’s great run of ambitious late-career pictures. Emotionally powerful and stylistically sure-handed, this true story-inspired drama begins small with the disappearance of a young boy, only to gradually fan out to become a comprehensive critique of the entire power structure of Los Angeles, circa 1928. Graced by a top-notch performance from Angelina Jolie, the Universal release looks poised to do some serious business upon tentatively scheduled opening late in the year.
Constructed around the infamous “Wineville Chicken Murders” in Riverside County, Calif., which achieved great notoriety at the time and, surprisingly, have never inspired a film before, the outstanding screenplay by J. Michael Straczynski (creator of TV’s “Babylon 5”) has deceptive simplicity and ambition to it, qualities the director honors by underplaying the melodrama and not signaling the story’s eventual dimensions at the outset. Characters and sociopolitical elements are introduced with almost breathtaking deliberation, as dramatic force and artistic substance steadily mount across the long-arc running time.
With a melancholy mood set by Eastwood’s typically spare guitar-and-piano score, the languid opening stretch stresses the ordinary nature of life for single mother Christine Collins (Jolie) and her 10-year-old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith), who share a modest house in a quiet neighborhood in Los Angeles. Christine has the photogenic job of telephone supervisor on roller-skates, overseeing dozens of female operators as they connect calls at a giant switchboard. Early sound films were loaded with scenes of smart-talking women handling phone lines; Eastwood takes advantage of the inspiration of skates to cover them in neat tracking shots.
One day when Christine is late getting home from work, Walter is gone. Nearly five months later, Christine is informed that her son has been found in Illinois. With all attendant hoopla for the benefit of the press and police, a reunion is arranged at the train station, but, as soon as the boy steps onto the platform, Christine knows this kid is not her son.
The police, fronted by Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), insist otherwise, waving off definitive evidence relating to physical discrepancies. Even when Walter’s dentist, teacher and fellow students insist he’s not the right boy, the replacement himself remains maddeningly resolute, driving the otherwise level-headed Christine to distraction.
Or at least that’s the way it looks to the cops, who promptly throw her in the psycho ward for her alleged delusion. Fears that the story is now destined to veer off into “The Snake Pit” or, given Jolie’s presence, “Girl, Interrupted” looney-bin cliches prove largely unfounded, despite a couple of brief electroshock scenes. Rather, this is where the picture really spreads its wings, as ramifications of this tragic but unexceptional case seep through the police department, the legal system, the medical establishment and City Hall in entirely unexpected ways.
Initially, this is due to the tireless efforts of a crusading radio evangelist, the Rev. Gustav Briegleb (an intent, focused John Malkovich), one of whose missions is to expose what he sees as the complete corruption of the LAPD under Chief James E. Davis (Colm Feore). On Christine’s side from the beginning, the pastor persists in using her case to spotlight the department’s malfeasance, and the character is notable as one of the few screen depictions of a righteous Christian leader of this period (the era of Aimee Semple McPherson) to be cast in an entirely favorable light.
Irrevocably setting the judicial machinery in motion is a boy in his early teens (Eddie Alderson, extraordinary) who movingly tells police about some horrific murders of kidnapped boys he’s unwillingly participated in with an unhinged young man, Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner), out in the desert. What happens next — to Capt. Jones, the police chief, the mayor and the murderers, among others — is all part of the public record and the less than salubrious history of Los Angeles politics.
The intercutting of two heavyweight proceedings, a murder trial and a landmark City Hall hearing, provide the story’s dramatic crescendo, although even greater tension stems from what comes thereafter. In the end, “Changeling” joins the likes of “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential” as a sorrowful critique of the city’s political culture.
A dozen filmmakers could have taken a dozen different approaches to the same material — sensationalistic, melodramatic, expose-minded, a kid’s or killer’s p.o.v., and so on. Perhaps the best way to describe Eastwood’s approach is that he’s extremely attentive — to the central elements of the story, to be sure (with its echoes of “A Perfect World”), but also to the fluidity between the private and the public, the arbitrariness of life and death, the distinct ways different people view the same thing, the destructive behavior of some adults toward children and the quality of life in California around the time he was born.
Despite the material’s dark themes, the Los Angeles setting helps make “Changeling” one of Eastwood’s most visually vivid films; cinematographer Tom Stern’s mobile camera has a graceful elegance, and several panoramic CGI vistas merge smoothly with location lensing to unemphatically evoke the dustier, less congested city of 80 years ago. Production designer James J. Murakami’s many sets impressively create a constant play of light and dark environments, and further period verisimilitude stems from Deborah Hopper’s costumes and the occasional presence of the extinct Red Car trolleys.
As she did in “A Mighty Heart,” Jolie plays a woman abruptly and agonizingly deprived of the person closest to her. But impressive as she may have been as the wife of Danny Pearl, her performance here hits home more directly due to the lack of affectation — no accent, frizzed hair or darkened complexion, and no attempt to consciously rein in emotion. There are inevitable one-note aspects to her Christine Collins, as she must exasperatedly repeat her positions to the authorities again and again. But Jolie makes it clear Christine maintains a grip on her sanity in the face of many assaults on its stability.
Pic offers a wealth of sterling supporting turns, from significant ones down to fleeting bit parts. The pressure felt by the police to toe the party line is deftly expressed in different ways by Donovan, Feore and Michael Kelly, the latter very fine as the cop who unearths the evidence at the murder site. Harner is startlingly unpredictable as the showboating but wimpy killer, while Geoff Pierson is commandingly charismatic as the eminent lawyer who calls the city big shots to account.
Postscript noting the fates of certain characters conveniently elides the sad and/or ironic destinies awaiting some of them.