Changeling

Angelina Jolie can’t help being gorgeous, so I don’t know why critics complain that her looks are too distracting for her to portray a normal woman. Utter balderdash. After the first few moments of Changeling, when Jolie’s beauty is breathtakingly undeniable, her talent takes over, you forget she’s a traffic-stopping movie star, and she delivers–yet again–a mesmerizing performance.

Critics are also complaining that Jolie’s performance is too unrelentingly painful, as if it’s okay for male characters to be constant in their pain and brooding (ala James Bond in Quantum of Solace), but women characters have to be light-hearted, at least on occasion, to be acceptable. Sigh. Changeling is a full-fledged, old-fashioned, heart-thumping drama, a true story of loss, of horrifying crime and mind-numbing police corruption. For the entire movie Jolie plays a mother whose child is missing, so she’s anguished, angry, and overwrought all the time–how else would she be? The nature of the story doesn’t include Hallmark moments and Jolie’s performance is in perfect sync with the tone of a movie that grabs you and never lets up. If you want light moments and happy women, you need to see another movie.

In Los Angeles, in March, 1928, single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie, Beowulf), returns home late from her job as a telephone switchboard supervisor to discover that her 11-year old son Walter is missing. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), infamously corrupt, gives only lip service to the search for her son. Outraged, a Presbyterian minister on a mission to clean up the LAPD, Rev. Gustav Breigleb (John Malkovich, Eragon), embarrasses the LAPD by publicly taking to the air waves to demand more action in the Collins case.

Five agonizing months go by. Then in August, lo and behold, the LAPD child services department hands over to Christine a boy found in Illinois who claims to be Walter. Only problem–the boy is not Walter. He’s three inches shorter than the missing boy, has different colored eyes, and his dental records don’t match. Nevertheless, LAPD insists that the boy is Walter and that Mrs. Collins is being difficult for not accepting him.

Worse, by continuing to demand “he’s not my son,” Mrs. Collins is bringing undue attention to the beleaguered police department. So the officer on her case throws her into the local psychopathic ward without benefit of a warrant–the police could do that then, and did, often, to women whose behavior was “disturbing.”

Although not a story of sisterhood per se, Changeling presents rare and powerful scenes of female friendship. A prostitute, Carol Dexter (in an incandescent performance by Amy Ryan, Oscar-nominated for Gone Baby Gone), has also been thrown in the psych ward–it seems she complained about a client who kept beating her up–and he was a cop. She warns Mrs. Collins how much control the police have over women they consider troublesome. They can be locked away indefinitely. “If we’re insane,” she warns Mrs. Collins, “no one has to listen to us.”

When the staff tries to force medication on Mrs. Collins, Dexter intervenes and is tortured for doing so. Touched by the prostitute’s selflessness, Mrs. Collins vows to help her and all the other women so egregiously imprisoned. In scenes of Kafka-esque madness, she fights against the psych system and the cruel psychiatrist who is determined to force her to admit the police charges against her are true. With Rev. Breigleb’s persistence, Mrs. Collins is released–and we are all left to wonder what happened to women across the country at that time who had no champion to help them.

Meanwhile, a horrific side story is developing in the lonely desert outside Los Angeles. For many months, Canadian drifter Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner) has been cruising the streets of Los Angeles, picking up boys, taking them to his ranch, and brutally murdering them. When he’s tracked down in Canada, he admits to as many as 20 murders. Was Walter among the boys he captured?

In powerful trajectories, the two stories intersect. In a courtroom in downtown, Mrs. Collins and her benefactors are successfully exposing the rotten core of the police department. Across the street, Northcott is tried for the murder of three boys and condemned to death. In a chilling pas de deux in prison before he is executed, Northcott faces Mrs. Collins. She demands to know if he killed her son. He, the incarnation of evil, refuses to give her closure. He blubbers all the way to the hanging noose without admitting Walter’s fate. Feeling in her heart that her son is still alive, Mrs. Collins spends the rest of her life searching for him.

Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers) directs Changeling with a steady, non-intrusive hand, allowing the story to reveal itself without any extra flourishes. It’s a big picture — over a thousand period costumes had to be made, numerous locations that could stand in for the 1920 had to be found, and all those antique cars rounded up. The sheer logistics of the movie are astounding.

All the performances, lead and secondary, are compelling. Special notice must be paid to the relatively unknown actor who plays the serial killer Gordon Northcott. Jason Butler Harner is only in a few scenes, but his performance is so powerful that he dominates your memory of the entire movie. Every gesture, every syllable, every quiver that he delivers makes an indelible portrait of evil. The Motion Picture Academy might deny an Oscar bid for the much ballyhooed Ms. Jolie, but there’s definitely going to be a nod for best supporting actor for this young man.

For those who love the craft of movies, Changeling is also memorable for its brilliant script. It is not an easy task to make a complex story understandable the brief time-frame of a movie and create historical characters who are meaningful to contemporary audiences. Scribe J. Michael Straczynski is known mostly for his TV work (Babylon 5, Jeremiah), so making a decision in mid-life to tackle such a sprawling true story had to be a daunting task. When Straczynski sold the script for Changeling, he was astonished to learn that director Clint Eastwood didn’t want any rewrites on it, an almost unheard of scenario in Hollywood, where scripts not only undergo many re-writes, but are often subject to the abuse of numerous authors, including the director. Eastwood felt the script was perfect as it was. I agree. If there’s any justice in the world, the script should be nominated for an Oscar.

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