Film review – Changeling (2008)

Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie)
Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie)

In 1928 the disappearance of Christine Collins’ 9-year-old son received nationwide attention in the USA. Also at the time, the Los Angeles Police Department were increasingly being accused of corruption and links to organised crime. In an attempt to drum up some much needed positive publicity the Police Department gave Christine custody of another 9-year-old boy who insisted that he was her son. When Christine refused to accept that this boy was her real son, she was accused of being hysterical and an unfit mother. Clint Eastwood’s Changeling is based on Christine’s story and the horrific series of kidnappings and murders of young boys that later became known as the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. Eastwood explores the injustice done to Christine and her son as a result of ineffective police work, political opportunism, socially ingrained chauvinism and barbaric attitudes towards mental health

Angelina Jolie completely occupies the part of Christine and, as she did in Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart, demonstrates just how strong a performer she can be. She traverses the full range of emotions that such a role demands, giving Christine just the right amounts of vulnerability and conviction. Michael Kelly (who played an FBI agent in the final season of The Sopranos) is fantastic as Lester Ybarra, the detective who stumbles across the very disturbing explanation for what may have happened to Christine’s real son. Jeffrey Donovan (Michael Westen from Burn Notice) is also terrific as J.J. Jones, the callous Los Angeles Police Captain. The only weak link in the cast is John Malkovich as Gustav Briegleb, a reverend who helps Christine in order to pursue his own mission to bring down the Police Department. Malkovich’s distinctive acting style is just too overbearing and overshadows the character that he is playing.

Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) and Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie)
Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) and Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie)

Changeling is characteristic of Clint Eastwood’s directorial career of meticulous, thoughtful and character driven films. Like many of Eastwood’s films, Changeling is long and unfolds gradually in a manner that less patient audiences may interpret as slow. However, there is nothing dull about this film and it is clearly the work of an experienced filmmaker with a natural instinct for how to craft each scene. Character and plot are central to Changeling and Eastwood has no desire to unnecessarily rush proceedings or explicitly state something that can be otherwise shown. Despite the occasional clunky line and obvious music cue, Changeling suitably stirs up feelings of outrage as well as vindication. Even the series of almost false endings in the final section of the film are palatable as they skilfully undermine any expectations of a clean-cut explanation and resolution.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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  1. Yo Caldwell, I got a bone to pick with your review, Man!

    Changeling was perhaps the biggest disappointment, cinematically speaking (let’s not be narrow minded), of 2008. Now, I’m partially saying this because going to the cinema has become an increasingly rare opportunity for me now that I’m among the ranks of the world’s “Hellion Raisers,” and so when I am able to secure a babysitter and sneak off, I do so only for a deserving candidate; secondly, my man Peter Travers (who I think is slipping, by the by) gave it the thumbs-up review; thirdly, having been a consistent fan of Clint Eastwood’s schtuff (particularly his seemingly flawless string of directorial work) for quite a while (thumbs up on your 5 reasons why ‘we’ love Clint), my expectations were placed even higher, and; finally, as you pointed out, Angelina Jolie’s recent work, more specifically her work in A Mighty Heart, (Tomb Raider, hmmm, not so much) has been quite good, good enough that I can almost see past the Brangelina shenanigans… Almost. (They’re still Mr. and Mrs. Smith for F*@k’s sake!)

    But this was crap. I mean, c’mon. “A meticulous, thoughtful and character driven” film?

    Did we see the same film? I will give you the disclaimer that you mentioned “the occasional clunky line and obvious music cue.” I would argue that this was 2 hours and 45 minutes of my life that I’ll never get back that amounted to one continuous string of “clunk” and “obvious.”

    Ok, first scene… Fade in, camera passes a bright red, Swiss-clean street car, approaches a shady, tree-lined street, moves though a painstakingly set period piece home and then hits Angelina’s bedroom just as the alarm clock sounds, which she gracefully switches off and rises from her slumber with her hair in immaculate condition, She-Devil Red lipstick in full is-the-contrast-adjusted-right bloom, and silk shawl embracing her shoulders with nary a wrinkle. If a cinema ticket in Europe didn’t cost the equivalent of a small-home loan Stateside, I woulda packed it up right there and gone home. But I will give Clint one thing, that opening scene really set the tone for the rest of the film, i.e. absolutely nothing in this film was believable. NOTHING. The whole thing, the acting, cinematography, script, on and on, was so stilted that I never for a minute: cared about a character, felt a pang of suspense or got involved (for lack of a better term) in the narrative. Here’s a short list of conneries (as they say here): 1) Repeated monsoon-style rain in Los Angeles, 2) Trees in Los Angeles, 3) Street cars in Los Angeles, 4) the Political Lobbying power of Evangelical radio… in Los Angeles. But seriously, the roller skating switchboard operators (in and of themselves a big question mark), just trying to convince Angelina to loosen up and go for a “girl’s night out”? Barf.

    CINEMA AUTOPSY EDIT – Minor spoilers from here on in

    The modest, cute-but-balding boss offering her a promotion to a different switchboard branch for all her hard work and dedication? What ever happened to that BTW? At the end of the film, years later we are supposed to believe (though by her flawless chestnut camel’s hair coat, cute little bell hat and acorn broach that she sports in EVERY scene are in exactly the same state that they were supposed to be mental hospitals, kidnappings and, in short, 5 years earlier, we would never have guessed as much), she is still grinding it out at the same office.

    How about the “keepin it real” friendship forged between Angelina and the hooker in the mental hospital, who after being friggin’ lobotomized, not only seems completely unfazed, but manages to muster up the gumption to give that poignant nod to the kiddo on her way out the front door (pride metaphor, very discreet) after courageous Angelina fought to right the wrongs even though she had already saved her own skin and came back to see justice done. Gag. Then there’s the betting on the Academy Awards, “I just knew Clark Gable wouldn’t win!” Oh, isn’t this SOOOO period? No, it’s contrived and unimaginative shit scriptwriting, only trumped by the insipid placement of a police call at that exact instant to report they might have found her son… again.

    CINEMA AUTOPSY EDIT – OK, coast is clear

    But at this point, who really even cares, ‘cause the movie has already drudged on for 45 minutes longer than it ever should have. In other words, the “false endings” that you called palatable, I would call as pleasurable as a root canal without Novocain.

    Ok, my blood pressure is up, I’m going to have to stop there. Hope this democratic expression of the freedom to creatively disagree finds you well, and by all means please respond if you see fit. Cheers.

  2. So, I guess what you are saying is that you didn’t like it, right?

    But seriously, sorry to hear that on a rare night at the cinema you saw a film that really didn’t agree with you. That really sucks. I don’t know if Gran Torino is out in your part of the world but I think you may enjoy that more. In fact, I suspect there will be a lot of people who will enjoy it more than Changeling so let the debate begin!

    Also, thank you for taking the time to provide such a passionate analysis of why you thought Changeling was so bad. It is a fantastic counter argument to what I wrote and I encourage everybody passing through here to make sure they read what you’ve written.

    I look forward to you picking more bones with me!


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