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Changeling (2008) Print E-mail
Friday, 24 October 2008
Image“Changeling” had the potential to be an outstanding movie, but while worth seeing, it falls short of that mark, partly because it tries to tell two stories—they’re linked, but they’re about very different subjects. The initial story is about a young single mother in 1928 Los Angeles whose 8-year old son disappears. A couple of months later, the police—who have not been very cooperative—proudly present her with a boy they (and he) says is her son, but he isn’t. The other story is about the discovery of a child murderer, who lives on a chicken farm not far from the Riverside County town of Wineville. The missing boy may have been one of his victims.

The screenplay is by television writer J. Michael Straczynski, his first feature film. It was bought to be directed by Ron Howard, but his schedule prevented this, so he and his partner in Imagine Films, Brian Grazer, approached Clint Eastwood. He was so taken with the script that he filmed it with few changes (which may be why some pesky anachronisms crop up—it wasn’t thoroughly vetted for historical goofs).

The greatest strength of the film is Angelina Jolie’s performance as Christine Collins, the (single) mother whose son Walter disappears. She and the boy were especially close, though her job as a roller-skating telephone operator supervisor requires that she work a lot of overtime. She calls the Los Angeles Police Department for help, but no headway is made. Pastor Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), of the prestigious St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, becomes interested in her case; he’s had troubles of his own with the L.A.P.D., which he (correctly) regards as the most violent and corrupt police department “this side of the Rockies.” Eventually Christine is put in touch with Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan of “Burn Notice”), the head of the Lincoln Park division juvenile division.

Her case begins making news, so not long thereafter Jones and L.A.P.D. chief James E. Davis (Colm Feore) stage a big press show at the railway station: a boy they claim is Walter is being delivered from De Kalb, Illinois. Excited and trembling, Christine goes to meet the boy—and immediately sees he’s not her son Walter, even though he claims he is. Just to get past the situation, she poses for photos, and is driven off with the boy.
But he really isn’t her son. He’s three inches shorter for one thing, and is circumcised—which Walter wasn’t. There’s a difficulty in these scenes, as the boy is required by the plot to be almost entirely unresponsive, and the film never really figures out what to do with him. He’s not innocent, but he is only eight years old, so how guilty can he be? The movie never decides, and this boy rarely speaks.

Meanwhile, Detective Lester Ybarra (Mike Kelly, who’s very good) heads out to the town of Wineville on a minor investigation (in reality, police were tipped off to this aspect of the case in a different manner). He visits a somewhat decrepit chicken farm owned by Gordon Stewart Northcott (Jason Butler Harner), but finds only Northcott’s 15-year-old Canadian cousin Sanford Clark (Eddie Alderson), who’s clearly terrified of something.

Christine keeps complaining to Jones that the boy is not Walter, so Jones does what police then could do: he commits her on the spot to a mental hospital’s psychopathic ward. There she’s befriended by heart-of-gold hooker Carol Dexter (an underused Amy Ryan), who’s been committed in the same fashion. She gives Christine a routine rundown on the ins and outs of the place, melodramatically depicted as a Snake Pit-like hellhole. They even perfunctorily perform electroshock therapy (years before it really began to be used in this manner), though it’s unclear just why. The nurses are all Nurse Ratchet-like monsters, not a sympathetic figure among them.

Sanford begs Ybarra to let him reveal something; though he’s skeptical, Ybarra has him go ahead. Tearfully, Sanford reveals that Northcott is a monster—he kidnaps boys, imprisons them in his chicken coops, then kills them. He’s forced Sanford to help with the killings and burials. The real Northcott was a sexual sadist; he not only molested all his charges himself, he rented them out sexual sadists with lots of money. His mother, in the movie seen only in Canada, also lived with him, and at one pointed claimed to have murdered Walter. She died in prison. Neither the movie nor the online sources reveal what happened to tortured Sanford.

The movie now cuts between these two storylines, melodramatically linking unrelated events: Christine on the brink of receiving electroconvulsive therapy is cut with poor Sanford, forced by Ybarra to dig up the bodies. The movie, in fact, is all too often inflicted with melodrama: twice Briegleb is Johnny-on-the-spot to save Christine from a serious problem. It’s hard to believe that in real life his timing was this razor-sharp, or that all the police Christine encountered were as venal as Jones and Davis. Only Ybarra is seen as basically decent, and even he isn’t above using coercive tactics on hapless Sanford. But the movie wants to keep audiences hooked—and so resorts to these melodramatic flourishes.

The basic problem, of course, is that while the story of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders (as that case is usually known) has a very clear and final ending—Eastwood does not spare the audience here—the story of Christine Collins and her son, in real life, simply trailed off into the shadows. Here, Jolie gets a big closeup and a shamelessly florid last line; the actress recovers, but the movie is injured.

However, it succeeds more than it fails; this is largely because of Angelina Jolie, who is (famously) a mother herself, and could invest the role with real human feelings; to a degree, she modeled Christine’s speech patterns on those of her own mother. Like Julia Roberts, Jolie is a major movie star, and became one the old-fashioned way: she’s gorgeous, and the camera loves her. But also like Roberts, she’s at her best in character roles—Roberts shines in romantic comedies, Jolie in dramas (she even won an Oscar for such a role). Here, she gives a performance of such honesty and integrity that she elevates the entire movie, which suffers when she’s not on screen. She even triumphs in the unfortunate booby-hatch sequence, which couldn’t have been easy. This probably isn’t her career high point, because she has many promising years ahead of her, but it’s her best performance overall. She disappears into the role of Christine, who always wears flame-red lipstick (otherwise, the movie’s colors are desaturated), cloche hats, and walks as though she thinks she might be grabbed at any moment. She’s only really relaxed when she’s with her son. Jolie manages to suggest a past for Christine, though there’s little in the text to support one.

Malkovich is also outstanding as the activist minister. He’s a cagey character—clearly sincere, but also clearly out to make headlines. He loves living a plush life, but he also has genuine concerns about the police department, and latches onto Christine’s case more because of the forum it gives him than because he is sympathetic to her. Fortunately, Christine realizes this and, though grateful, isn’t deceived.

Jeffrey Donovan is saddled with a difficult role. He has a likeable screen presence, which leads us to initially trust J.J. Jones—but what’s with this slight but discernible accent? And did he really have to drop the g off every single “-ing” word the character says? This eventually becomes obvious and tiresome, shtick rather than characterization. The movie wisely doesn’t suggest that Jones is corrupt beyond his refusal to accept Christine’s claims that the boy delivered to her is not Walter. But Jones also allows the narrow view of women to shape all his attitudes toward Christine and her problems; when she won’t accept the “truth” of his assertions, instead still insisting the boy is not her son, she’s clearly deranged, driven by her emotions, as he assumes all women are. We know Christine is telling the truth, and we suffer along with her, but Eastwood also has a point to make, rather too strongly, about the position of women in 1928-1930. And about the truly rotten Los Angeles Police Department; we even see a brief dramatization of Davis’ “gun squads”—cops who were expected to kill suspects rather than bring them in.

The movie doesn’t even suggest that Northcott molested the boys he kidnapped, though that was a lurid part of the news stories of the day. It’s a strange evasion, but perhaps Eastwood was dubious about the sexual-psychopath elements overwhelming the rest of the story. The performance of Jason Butler Harner as Northcott is weird even by serial killer standards: he’s vaguely blithe, giggling and smiling a lot. It’s not a very rich performance; the screenplay doesn’t allow it, but it’s certainly showy.

The script has an uphill battle of linking the chicken coop murder story to the tale of Christine Collins (even though they did become directly llinked), yet it largely manages this very well. There are a few elements that seem surprisingly amateurish, such as Christine telling Walter that his long-gone father fled his responsibilities—and later Jones accusing Christine of evading her responsibilities herself. This seems to have been intended as irony, but it mostly falls flat. There are one or two lines that got laughs from the studio audience—but perhaps they were intended to. Jones pompously assures Christine that her case has been viewed by “the best minds in the field of child identification.” There IS a field of child identification?? Doctors are shown to be in league with the police department—although a dentist is shown to be a good guy.

The movie seems to have several endings, stretching out toward the finish—though even at 140 minutes it doesn’t really seem too long. There was one incident in real life that did link Christine Collins and the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders: just before his execution, Northcott summoned Collins to a meeting at San Quentin. It probably didn’t play out as it does in the movie, but the content is factually accurate. It was just this strange.

Some of the period aspects of the movie are handled very well, if at times a bit showily. The costumes are exactly right; Christine’s clothes are a few years out of date—they’re flapper-ish, and by 1928 flappers were out of style—but they’re well designed in a modest fashion. The men’s clothes are also mostly accurate without calling attention to themselves. The usual elements of a period Los Angeles film are here: a wide cityscape in which the only tall building is the recently-completed City hall, streets with boxy cars and Big Red Cars clanging along. Walter, the real one, is especially well-rendered; he looks like he stepped out of a 1928 photograph. Interiors are dark and moody, as they really were in the period.

But there are also peculiar anachronisms. Chief Davis uses the phrase “that begs the question” as if it mean “that raises the question”—but in 1928, it most definitely did not have that meaning. Instead, it was used to call attention to the logical fallacy of using a proposition to prove itself. It didn’t get the “raises the question” meaning until the 1990s. Someone refers to Northcott as a “serial killer,” but that term wasn’t invented until about 1970; it simply did not exist prior to that time. Northcott would have been (and probably was) referred to instead as a “thrill killer” or a “mass killer.” It’s odd that a movie that gets the look of 1928 so right would miss these mistakes. Most people won’t realize they’re errors; those that do will be yanked out of the movie immediately. Oddly, another one is the old Universal glass globe logo that opens the film. It’s one of the best black-and-white studio emblems—but Universal didn’t use it until the 1940s. Was the Los Angeles Police Department regularly called the L.A.P.D. (ell ay pee dee) in 1928? I don’t know, but it sounds a little wrong.

The title itself is a shade questionable. The word “changeling,” until now, has referred to the supernatural children left in place of human children by fairies or elves. Here, of course, it’s used figuratively—but actually the “changeling” element of the story is relatively minor. It is more important that the police refuse to accept the word of a mother than that the boy has been replaced. The replacement boy, the changeling himself, is largely a side issue. There are a few odd glitches in time, perhaps a result of the movie being reedited from its original structure. Of course, the movie really couldn’t have been called “The Wineville Chicken Coop Murders.” (In 1930, Wineville changed its name to Mira Loma.)

Eastwood also did the score for the movie, mostly low-key piano (did he also play it?), and it’s one of the best he’s done so far. It suggests the period without imitating the period; it underscores but understates the emotions of scenes, never reaching crescendos. It’s a cool, wise and rather jazzy score, evocative and intelligent.

Eastwood is a good but not a showy director, and he’s amazingly efficient. He makes more films than any other major director of today; he’s already well into production, perhaps post-production, on his next. Onward and upward with the arts, Clint. “Changeling” will ultimately be regarded, I predict, as a reasonably good but not outstanding Clint Eastwood movie—and it will bring light to a once-notorious but long-forgotten pair of criminal cases.

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