THE CHANGELING, directed and produced by Clint Eastwood, is based on a true story so Kafka-esque that it staggers the imagination. In March of 1928, Christine Collins came home from work to discover her nine-year-old son, Walter, was missing. Her call to the Los Angeles police for help was rebuffed because the boy hadn’t been missing the prescribed 24 hours. Under pressure from media scrutiny to produce a happy ending, the police eventually returned a boy to Collins. Unfortunately for all concerned, it wasn’t her boy, and the police insistence that she was mistaken eventually created a furor that went to the heart of police corruption and the status of women way back when. This is familiar Eastwood territory. The loner with steely resolve standing up to the status quo without batting an eye, and in the person of Angelina Jolie as Collins, he has found a credible heroine with a jaw set as firmly as Clint’s was back in his Man With No Name days.
The sense of unreality is captured nicely, never better than when a doctor explains to Collins that despite Walter’s loss of three inches in height and of a foreskin proving him to be a fake, that she doesn’t have the necessary objectivity to decide if the eponymous changeling is her own flesh and blood. The boy himself, cheery and doe-eyed as he pretends to an identity not his own, is the essence of creepiness. Collins as the only sane person in the madhouse of policemen trying to avoid embarrassment in the press is just as terrifying in its own way as her later sojourn in the psychiatric ward. There, befriended by a prostitute (Amy Adams) committed for filing charges against a cop, the import of what has happened to her sinks in just as the full import of the proto-fascist state in the making sinks in for the audience.
Jolie gives a performance of enormous passion and intelligence. She is a study in dignity even when gliding on skates as a phone company supervisor. This may be the early 20th century, but she is a formidable presence even within the confines of what constituted ladylike behavior back then. Her deference to the male of the species has no hint of presumed inferiority, exactly the sort of woman to tick off the police detective who made a press event of the mother and child reunion and has no problem persecuting the mother of the piece for refusing quietly rear the child handed to her. It gains the attention of Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) for other reasons, as in a way to make inroads on his crusade against political corruption in Los Angeles, and his forum ups the ante for all concerned, taking a private tragedy and playing it out in the press as the only way to get justice.
The performances by the supporting cast are a tribute to the concept of less is more and include Jason Butler Harner as a blithely and diabolically fey serial killer, Malkovich as a genuine pillar of virtue who is anything but self-righteous, and Amy Adams as a hard-boiled working girl who helps Collins find her inner virago.
The look of the film carries with it the larger story of good versus evil, not so much with noir-esque shadows, but with the white light in which Jolie is photographed. She is pale, but not weak, with eyes that blaze even when Collins’ body gives out. At odds with the elegantly spare direction by Eastwood is a script that hits more than a few clunks with exposition that is facile, and that overstays its welcome. After having reached the emotional climax of the story, it then continues on with extraneous scenes rather than a denouement when postscript titles covering that ground would have served much better. The effect undercuts the impact of a strong ending.
THE CHANGELING, for all its power, fury, and superb tension, carries within it another, and unfortunate sort of tension, that of a flabby script doing battle with lean direction. The result is a flawed film that is a testament to the talents of the actors and director who rise mightily to the challenge.