Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Clint Eastwood knows, and in the brooding, disturbing “Changeling,” he puts that knowledge on screen and combines it with a testament to the strength of a mother’s hope and love.
If that sounds like an unusual combination, the unexpected has become standard operating procedure for Eastwood, a director whose five-film, five-year run, from “Mystic River” in 2003 to this film today, has been the most consistently powerful and affecting force on the American movie scene.
Though “Changeling” stars actress of the moment Angelina Jolie, Eastwood’s films are invariably old-fashioned, in the best sense, in that they are concerned with telling a story. Increasingly over this last five years the stories told have darkened, and “Changeling” unfolds with a melancholy fatalism, a sense of evil so pervasive it takes an act of will to believe that the persistence of goodness can make a difference.
Even the film’s title, referring to folkloric tales of infants secretly swapped by malicious fairies, has an unnerving, disorienting quality that fits “Changeling’s” daylight ghost story sensibility. For this is a film willing to be, as Eastwood himself said when it debuted at Cannes, “a horror story for adults, not for thrill-seeking kids.”
Based on real Los Angeles events and taken from a script by J. Michael Straczynski, best known for TV’s science fiction “Babylon 5,” “Changeling” underlines its adult nature with the quiet yet steely deliberation it employs in setting the scene of Los Angeles in 1928.
It’s almost as if Eastwood, using his own gently melodic score and Tom Stern’s beautiful cinematography, wants to initially lull us into getting sentimental for the good old days, when the Lincoln Heights neighborhood east of downtown was neat as a pin and the Red Cars ran to the sea. But if you look closely, Stern’s rich colors are not really bright but muted, almost somber, as if our sunny days are never sunny enough to dispel the shadows that lurk underneath.
“Changeling” opens with an ordinary Friday morning for single mother Christine Collins (Jolie) and her 9-year-old son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith). She drops him off at school and then goes on to her job supervising phone operators at Pacific Telephone and Telegraph, where she manages to be all business despite having to do her job, as was the practice back in the day, on roller skates.
It’s clear from just the brief time they have together that her son is the heart of Christine Collins’ life, so much so that it bothers her when she’s called in to work on Saturday because she will have to miss time she could spend with him. That bad feeling intensifies when Collins gets home late Saturday to find that Walter is nowhere to be found. She calls the Los Angeles police, but their reaction is lackadaisical, as if they have better things to do than chase vanished kids.
One problem the LAPD has is the weekly broadcasts of the Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), “the Lord’s word on radio,” a crusading Presbyterian minister who believes “our protectors have become our brutalizers” and lambastes the force under Chief James E. “Two Guns” Davis as “the most violent, corrupt, incompetent police department this side of the Rocky Mountains.”
So, eager for good publicity, Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), the head of the LAPD’s juvenile division, is more than happy to be able to call Collins five months later to report that Walter has been found alive and well in the Midwest. But when the excited mother shows up at Union Station for the reunion, she is in for a terrible shock. Presented with Walter, she takes one look and says, “That’s not my son.”
What happens next is increasingly the stuff of “The Return of Martin Guerre"-type nightmares. The more Collins insists, with increased proof as time goes on, that this boy is not her son, the more the LAPD tries to discredit her, paint her as a villainous unfit mother and apply even more coercive measures.
Yet as that police pressure increases, Collins refuses to buckle. Instead, she gets increasingly frantic, wild that time that could be spent finding her son is being squandered, and it is this edge of anxiety that is the heart of Jolie’s deeply felt performance. Dealing with the recent death of her own mother and herself a mother with several children, Jolie brings emotional desperation to a role she quite possibly connected to in ways she wished she hadn’t.
As this scenario unfolds, we are also made aware of developments in another case. LAPD Det. Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly) goes out to a lonely chicken ranch near Riverside and arrests a 15-year-old boy to be deported back to Canada, a boy with a strange story to tell.
As these cases develop, helped by strong performances by little-seen actors like Jason Butler Harner, they form a relentless pincers movement whose prongs move forward with an awful fatalism. In other hands, these clashes of good and evil might have seemed ordinary, but Eastwood makes “Changeling” a hard story to shake off. To see this film is to understand both how fragile and how essential our hopes for decency and truth are in a world that must be made to care about either one.
MPAA rating: R for some violent and disturbing content and language
Runing time: 2 hours, 21 minutes
Playing: In general release