By Kim Voynar
Clint Eastwood's Changeling (which may or may not be now known as The Exchange), is a riveting drama about a missing boy and the undying constancy of a mother's love. Angelina Jolie excels in a powerful performance as Christine Collins, whose nine-year-old son, Walter, disappeared in 1928. Five months later, police returned to her a boy they said was Walter; Christine alleged that the boy was not her son.
At the time, the Los Angeles police department was under considerable pressure due to the efforts of a Presbyterian minister, Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), to expose corruption within the police force. Captain Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), who heads up the investigation, doesn't particularly care whether the boy is or isn't Walter Collins; he has a publicity campaign to manage that's all about making himself look good, so he tries to convince Christine to accept the found boy as her son. When she fights back by going to the press, Jones has her committed to the psycho ward.
The film is based on a the true story of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders in the late 1920s; Gordon Stewart Northcott molested, tortured, killed and dismembered 20 or so young boys on his rural farm before his nephew confessed to police what was taking place there. Because the film is based on real events, we know going in how it's going to end; the film's tension rides, therefore, not in the destination but in the journey to get there. Eastwood controls the film's pacing with a careful touch, letting us feel Christine's anguish, and taking us all the way down into her dark night of the soul before granting the emotional release at the film's somewhat redemptive end.
Jolie portrays a classic tragic heroine in the film; a single mother abandoned by Walter's father, she's raised her boy alone, and he's all she has. Her reaction to Captain Jones's refusal to accept that the boy the police have brought home to her is not her son goes from earnest insistence to stark disbelief to anger. The police captain, unwilling to acknowledge the failings of his department, makes her the enemy rather than the victim, alternately painting her in the press as a negligent mother who simply doesn't want to take responsibility for her son now that he's found, or perhaps a hysterical woman with delusions of paranoia.
This is a case of real life being stranger (or perhaps, more horrific) than fiction. If a screenwriter had written a script like this that was purely fictional, audiences would find it hard to accept. It seems rather fantastic to imagine that the police wouldn't simply believe a mother who says, this is not my child. Of course she would know her own child; I'd know any of my kids in a pitch black room, by the outline of their profiles, the feel of their hair, their unique scents. It's important to keep in perspective, though, that the film takes place in 1928, during a time with corruption on the police force was rampant, women were viewed as emotional and prone to bouts of hysteria, and people could be locked in a mental hospital to get them out of the way of those in power.
Anytime a film centers on the idea of a child in peril, the dramatic tension stakes are raised accordingly, but the conflict in the film works on many levels: in Christine facing the police captain; in the captain versus the preacher; in good cop versus bad cop; and, of course, in the broader theme of Christine facing the challenges women of that time faced in society generally. Watching that very real history play out -- the whole, "there now, be a good girl, keep your mouth shut and just do as you're told" mentality, rankles me to my very core, as I expect it will to most modern women watching it.
Eastwood relies largely on the strength of Jolie's performance to carry the film, playing up the bully-victim relationship to the hilt to create a sense of opposing forces crashing into each other. Jolie's mama-lioness performance is powerful -- she plays Christine as both strong and vulnerable, a woman who is both tethered to the restraints of the society in which she must maneuver, and fiercely resilient in her search for the truth about what happened to her son. Jolie's performance evokes her stylistically similar performance in A Mighty Heart; she spends most of the film wrenched in anguish that resonates to the core. In the latter third of the film, Christine undergoes a dramatic shift from the tragic woman who's lost a child to a heroine who must advocate for the rights of other women in similar situations, and one can't help but draw parallels to Jolie's own personal activism.
Donovan, as corrupt and dictatorial police captain, is infuriatingly smug, which is just as he should be for the role of a man who will stop at nothing -- not even the life of a child -- to protect his own sorry hide. John Malkovich sizzles as the preacher-with-a-cause, arcing his character nicely; Malcovitch's Brieglib starts out feeling like a grandstander, but his sympathies for Christine's plight ultimately shift his priorities. Amy Ryan sneaks in a nice supporting role as a former prostitute and fellow psych-ward detainee.
My one beef with the performances was with Jason Butler Harner as the murderer; this is a wretched, morally abysmal character, yes, but Harner kind of looks and feels like Kyle Maclachlan if he went on a really bad lost meth weekend and never came all the way back. His hysterical craziness is just a bit over-the-top and detracts from the film, but I suppose when you're playing a man who tortures little boys and chops them up with an ax, it's hard to find a middle-ground.
Regarding the other elements of the film, J. Michael Straczynski's script is first-rate; he's an excellent storyteller, and does a solid job of translating true events into a dramatic story. There's no jarring wooden dialog here, no overt exposition; Straczynski knows how to show rather than tell, and the powerful script does much to carry the film. As with most of Eastwood's films, it's artfully shot and directed and very pretty to look at. Eastwood wrote the music for the film as well, and you could practically imagine the orchestra at the Oscars playing it in January; the film telegraphs "Oscar nominations" for Jolie and Eastwood, at the least, but of course, we'll have to wait and see how the rest of the year pans out. Changeling opens November 7.