Clint Eastwood sure isn't one to shy away from dark, gut-wrenching material for his directorial projects, and Changeling is no exception. I went into the screening bracing myself for sorrow and pain, but I didn't brace myself enough. Changeling contains all the heavy sentimentality of Million Dollar Baby and that punch-in-the-stomach anguish of injustice found in Mystic River. Add to this the terrible real-life tragedy involving innocent children and you've got a very difficult (though worthwhile) movie-watching experience.
In 1928, single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) returns home from her job at the telephone company to discover that her son Walter has gone missing. After a few months, the LAPD claim they've found her son and they bring a child, claiming to be Walter, to Christine. She insists he isn't her child but the shady police captain, J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), desperate for the LAPD to have a positive story in the news, bullies Christine into believing that she's just a woman who has been driven to hysterics by grief and worry. All of Christine's further attempts to convince the police department that her son is still at large are shot down until Jones finally hauls Christine away to a mental institution to shut her up. For more of the story and some of my thoughts on it all, read more.
Christine's only ally is Gustav Briegleb, a Presbyterian reverend who makes it his mission to expose the corruption of the LAPD. Ultimately, detective Lester Ybarra follows a lead that brings him to Wineville, California where the disturbed Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner) has been committing heinous crimes against children. Gordon's trial comes about at the same time that Christine and Gustav are bringing charges against the LAPD. All the while, Christine doggedly continues her search for Walter, spurred by her belief that he's still out in the world.
There are so many aspects of this movie that claw at the heart. There's the missing child storyline, and the infuriating treatment of Christine Collins when she asks for a decent amount of help from the LAPD. Then there's the horrifying situation (made more horrifying by the fact that it's a true story) involving Gordon Northcott in Wineville. And there's the outrageous incarceration of Christine Collins (and any other woman who dares take the LAPD to task) in the mental institute. It's just a constant barrage of emotional beatings that had me squirming in my seat, more uncomfortable than I've been at a movie in a long, long time. By the end of it, I was exhausted.
Eastwood has captured the time period remarkably well, down to the last careful detail, and any film that can evoke such fury, horror, and aching sympathy is certainly one for the ages. Angelina Jolie's performance is excellent and focused, and while it's strange to see her play someone so meek, I easily bought her as a gentle, average mother caught up in a situation more harrowing than your worst nightmare. An equally powerful performance, however, is Jason Butler Harner's as the mentally unstable Gordon. Of course we loathe this character, but Harner somehow brings a bewildering and terribly sad humanity to an otherwise monstrous person. Amy Ryan is also riveting — making her role both pitiable and strong — as another woman who has been wrongfully committed to the mental institute. These performances, along with Eastwood's direction make for a staggering film, even if it does leave your heart feeling shredded.
Photos courtesy of Universal