The United States of America
Arthur Hutchins: 'Night, mommy.
Christine Collins: [yelling] Stop calling me that! I'm not your mother! I want my son back! Damn you!
The first time that I saw Changeling was with my father in a Regal 22 cinema. We were both excited to see it. Well, truth be told, I was excited because it was a Clint Eastwood production. My father needed a little convincing. But after I showed him another one of Eastwood's projects, a little Western named Unforgiven (1992), he consented. Two and a half hours later, we both emerged from the theater visibly shaken. I cautiously asked my father what he thought about it. “It was great,” he told me, “I'm glad that I saw it. But I never want to see it again.” I totally understood what he meant. Truth be told, neither one of us were expecting what Clint Eastwood had in store for us. It was a disturbing masterpiece. It was disturbing because it told the horrifying true stories of a woman being violated by an all powerful police department and one of the worst serial killers in American history. It was a masterpiece because every frame, every shot, and every scene was flawlessly and brilliantly executed. And yet, it was largely ignored. It received a couple of Academy Award nominations, but no wins. It was in the lead for the Palme d'Or at the 61st Cannes Film Festival, but lost because two of the judges refused to believe that such an incredible story was true. Critics didn't know how to handle it. Audiences didn't know how to react to it. And so, it was largely forgotten in the light of Eastwood's other 2008 project, Gran Torino. But it shouldn't have. Changeling was the natural successor to a long line of powerful Eastwood dramas like Mystic River (2003), Million Dollar Baby (2004), and his twin war epics: Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006). In all of those movies, the story centered on male characters. Even Million Dollar Baby was told from the point of view of the main male character. But not Changeling. No, Changeling focuses its story on a woman.
The woman in question is Christine Collins (played by a stunning Angelina Jolie), a single mother living in 1928 Los Angeles. She lives alone with her nine-year old son Walter. They share a difficult, but ultimately happy, life. Times are not easy for single women in this day and age, nor is it easy for their children, as Walter is picked on at school for not having a father. But they love each other and support each other as time goes by. Then, one day the unthinkable happens: Walter goes missing. She frantically calls the Los Angeles Police Department who tell her that it is protocol to not investigate missing children cases until 24 hours go by. Their reason is that the children usually show up on their own. But the day turns into months as Walter does not come home. Finally, one day, the police department, led by Chief James E. Davis (Colm Feore) tells her that they have found her son and that they will be reunited at the train station. This event is a perfect opportunity to score some good press for the LAPD, who has come under fire as one of the most corrupt organizations in America. As Reverend Gustav Briegleb (played by John Malkovich who at times seems to be channeling his performance as Tom Ripley from Ripley's Game) points out on his radio broadcasts, the LAPD is involved with gambling, prostitution, bootlegging, and extra-judicial punishment. By extra-judicial punishment, it means that they have a “Gun Squad” who has no reservations to ruthlessly kill anyone who gets in their way. So maybe it isn't any surprise that at the train station, the boy that they give Christine is not her son. Oh, the boy claims that he is her son and the police department claim that he is her son, but Christine knows better. He is several inches shorter than her Walter. Also, in one particularly poignant scene, she discovers that he is circumcised. Her Walter wasn't. But this means bad press, so Captain J.J. Jones, the head of the LAPD's Juvenile Division, pressures Christine to take him home on what he calls a “trial basis.”
The rest of the movie details her struggle against the LAPD who see Christine as a threat. They send over doctors and specialists to confirm that he is, in fact, Walter Collins. All, of course, are under contract with the police office. Although they cannot come up with any reasonable explanations as to why Walter has suddenly shrunk and changed appearance, they are certain that he is Walter. But Christine doesn't back down. She checks with her son's dentist and teacher to confirm that this boy isn't her son. Even Reverend Briegleb comes to her aid. But the police will not tolerate her going to the press and exposing their mistake. So they have her committed to a mental hospital under Code Twelve. This is a system that the police have worked out so they can dump their “undesirables” into an institution where they won't be a liability anymore. It turns out that almost all of the women there are Code Twelves who happened to fall into the LAPD's bad graces. As fellow inmate Carol Dexter tells her, “The more you try to act sane, the crazier you start to look. If you smile too much, you're delusional or you're stifling hysteria. And if you don't smile, you're depressed. If you remain neutral, you're emotionally withdrawn, potentially catatonic.” Indeed, one of the film's most intense scenes is when she meets with the resident doctor who gives her a psychological evaluation. Everything she says is twisted by the doctor into a reason why she is crazy. Notice how early in the interview when he asks her questions, everything she says is met with a terrifying scratch on the doctor's notepad. The sound and motion becomes maddening as she slowly realizes that she is doomed. Such subtlety is rare in today's films, but Eastwood pulls it off with devastating power.
But Walter Briegleb and his church bust her out. In fact, with the help of the best attorney in the city, who decides to do the case pro bono, all of the women who were institutionalized under Code Twelve are released. And so they begin to fight back against the LAPD. But this isn't the only story being told. While Christine faces the horrors of the asylum, the film cuts to a ranch in Wineville, Riverside County where a young boy named Sanford Clark is arrested by the police. As he is being prepared for deportation back to Canada, he suddenly wants to speak to a police officer. He confesses that while he was at the ranch, his uncle, Gordon Northcott, forced him to help kidnap and murder around twenty young boys. From here on, a manhunt is launched for Gordon, leading to his arrest and trial.
The movie handles both plot threads with precision. But where it really shines is when the two collide in a brilliant scene that alternates between two court cases: the city council hearing of LAPD abuse against Christine and Gordon's trial. Because Gordon could be responsible for Walter's disappearance, Christine attends his trial while her own is in recess. The two trials operate in tandem: both present evidence at the same time, both reach verdicts at the same time. To reveal the ending would be to spoil the movie, but suffice to say it is difficult to classify. It isn't necessarily a happy ending, but it isn't a sad ending, either. But it does provide a measure of closure and finality that such a demanding movie entails.
I like to think that as directors age, their work gets better. I earnestly believe that Akira Kurosawa's Ran (1985) is his best film, even though most believe that Seven Samurai (1954) was his best. But when I watch Ran, I see the result of a master craftsman who has devoted his entire life to his trade. Each frame seems as inspired and perfectly designed as every brush-stroke from a Monet. In Changeling, we see a film that could only have been made by a director such as Clint Eastwood, who has been an actor for over fifty years and a director for over thirty. It is a testament to his power that some of the most devastating scenes are the most subtle. For instance, the scene where Sanford confesses to the police that he has murdered twenty kids. The officer hands him a group of pictures of various missing boys. Slowly, he begins to put down each one on the table. With each photo, the officer begins to grow paler. Crying, he ends up putting down almost all of the photos. He is responsible for them. A lesser director would have ordered a dramatic scene with a tearful confession. But not here. The boy just puts down the photos and whimpers.
There are many scenes that I have left out that deserve mention: Christine's preliminary examination at the institution, the chicken coup escape scene, Gordon's hanging. However, I am not sure if I could ever stop ranting about them. All I can say is that each of them are flawlessly constructed. That is part of Changeling's charm: they don't make movies like this anymore. Maybe that is why it didn't do very well in theaters. Maybe we have forgotten how to react to good movies. No, not good, but great movies. Because that is what Changeling is, a great movie.
Now, before I finish this review, I'd like to take a moment to talk about Angelina Jolie. I think that she is a great actor and her performance in this movie is exceptional. But I feel sorry for her. I feel sorry that she picks such bad movie roles. As I look at her screen credits on wikipedia, I am overcome by the number of cheesy action flicks that she has starred in: Wanted (2008), Beowulf (2007), Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005), Alexander (2004), Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), and Gone in Sixty Seconds (2000). There is a reason why she won an Oscar for Girl, Interrupted (1999): she is a genuinely talented actress. If she picked better roles, she could easily go down as one of the world's greatest actresses. One can only hope.....