Clint Eastwood, the minimalist director who last brought us 2007’s harrowing set of films, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” is a master at portraying the desperate individual caught in an unfortunate situation. His latest work, “Changeling,” based off a real-life mystery ripped from L.A. Times headlines by the film’s screenwriter, continues with this motif.
Christine Collins, played by the distractingly full-lipped Angelina Jolie, is a single mother who is forced to leave her nine-year-old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) at home due to a rare late shift at her job as a telephone company supervisor. Upon returning home, she discovers that Walter has vanished. Christine launches into a frenzied search that spans over several months until the city’s chief of police, James E. Davis (Colme Feore) finally reunites her with a boy.
The only problem is that this boy actually isn’t her son. Christine tries to reject this imposter, even informing the police who made the “find” that this wannabe-Walter is inexplicably circumcised, but the corrupt policeman Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) waves her off as a just another hysterical female. The oddly Irish-accented captain even goes so far as to send Christine to a creepy, electroshock-friendly psych ward to avoid admitting that the department made a mistake.
The story then makes many radical shifts in tone and focus by presenting us with several subplots involving a child-killing lunatic, an honest cop discovering a possible link to Christine’s dilemma and a crusading minister leading the city on a protest against police corruption. One could say this film suffers from a lack of a singular identity. “Changeling” can be described as a “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” feminist parable, a bloody slasher flick and, finally, a courtroom drama. After 140 minutes, it ends on a frenetic and incomplete note.
Jolie is generating some Oscar buzz with this role, managing to garner audience sympathy as she cries, shrieks and gazes intensely from beneath her little felt hat. Although it is interesting to see Eastwood’s return to the exploration of strong female characters as he did in “Million Dollar Baby,” Jolie’s portrayal of Christine Collins is hardly a memorable feminist figure. J. Michael Straczynski’s script unfortunately portrays Collins as a victimized, one-dimensional woman driven only by the need to find her son.
The rest of the characters fall into the mold of either “good guys” or “bad guys,” and there is no grey area in sight. Those interested in a revealing tale on the dark past of Mira Loma, Calif. will probably enjoy this film. But Clint Eastwood fans will be disappointed after comparing this work to his earlier successes.