Changeling, Clint Eastwood’s period thriller based on a true Depression-era California story, is a traditionally minded movie with solid, old-fashioned values: fine acting, an absorbing, suspenseful story with clear moral lines, and a somber tone respectful of its sad, brave characters. (Somber seems to be Eastwood’s favorite mood.)
Written by veteran TV producer J. Michael Stracynski following a year’s meticulous research, the movie tells the story of Christine Collins, an L.A. single mother whose son, Walter, disappeared in 1928, setting off a bizarre series of events that exposed deep corruption in the LA police department. Angelina Jolie plays Collins, a phone-company supervisor who, in the mode of the day, glides across the switchboard floor in roller skates.
When her beloved Walter (Gattlin Griffith) disappears, Collins tries to enlist the help of an indifferent LAPD. After five months, the police announce they have found the boy in Illinois, but when the child arrives, Collins knows he isn’t her son. Unwilling to risk bad publicity, the police persuade her to take the boy home “on a trial basis.” The boy is clearly an impostor, but when Christine continues to press police captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan, with a sinister Irish brogue) to find her son, Jones brands her a delusional, unfit mother. Christine’s case attracts the attention of a crusading preacher, Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich, oddly reminiscent here of Vincent Price), who broadcasts a radio program targeting LAPD corruption. With Briegleb’s help, Christine goes to the press, and Jones has her committed to a snake pit of an asylum. The story grows even grimmer with the discovery of a series of grisly child murders at a ranch in Wineville, California and the arrest of their perpetrator, Gordon Stewart Northcott (the excellent Jason Butler Harner).
The movie hews closely to the facts of the case, though mercifully doesn’t dramatize the more sensational details of the “Wineville Chicken Coop Murders” — the flashes of implied violence are more than enough to haunt your dreams. Despite some minor anachronisms, the period detail is impressive, from furnishings and cars to cloche hats and dropped-waist dresses. Jolie is affecting in a performance much quieter than her intense histrionics in A Mighty Heart, albeit so skinny she looks in some scenes like a pair of tremulous red lips on a stick. Someone, please get this woman a sandwich.
Originally published in Cleveland Scene.