Changeling

Movie Information

The Story: Fact-based story of Christine Collins, who was victimized by the LAPD for refusing to accept that the boy they returned to her was her missing son. The Lowdown: A truly compelling story that suffers from shaky characterization and a story line that necessitates a slightly meandering narrative.
Score:

Genre: Historical Crime/Drama
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Michael Kelly, Jeffrey Donovan, Jason Butler Harner, Eddie Alderson
Rated: R

While I’ve never been able to buy into the idea that Clint Eastwood is one of the great filmmakers—I rate his Million Dollar Baby (2004) as the most embarrassing choice for a Best Picture Oscar ever made—I’ve always admired the fact that he has continued to make his rather old-fashioned movies his way. I may not be in sympathy with his aesthetic (if I never hear another piano-tinkling jazz musical score again, that’ll be fine with me), but I’d never deny his status as a serious artist. And I have to admit that his latest film, Changeling—despite a number of problems—is one of his best works. This is largely due to the strength of the source material, which may be part of the problem, too, since there’s just too much of it packed into the film.

Changeling is based on two—if not three—related historical events. The setup story is entirely focused on the disappearance of Christine Collins’ (Angelina Jolie) son, Walter (TV actor Gattlin Griffith), and the efforts of the LAPD to foist another boy (newcomer Devon Conti) on her as Walter. The idea is that locating the boy will provide the transparently corrupt department with much-needed good press. There’s a pretty obvious flaw in their plan, however, since the boy claiming to be Walter isn’t him and doesn’t fool Collins for a moment. Nevertheless, she takes the boy from Captain J.J. Jones (TV actor Jeffrey Donovan) for what the latter calls a “trial basis” by playing on her sympathies (“He has no place else to go”). This, of course, leads to Collins being photographed with her “returned child.”

Evidence mounts that this is not the boy—he’s circumcised, and Walter wasn’t; his teeth don’t match the dental records etc.—but the police are determined to stick to their story. They discredit Collins at every turn, calling her an unfit mother and railroading her into an insane asylum (which seems to exist solely for the purpose of getting rid of women who have inconvenienced the LAPD). Fortunately, Collins has a supporter in radio evangelist Rev. Gustav Brieglub (John Malkovich), who specializes in exposing the corruption of the police department.

In the meantime, Detective Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly, Loggerheads) is sent on a seemingly routine case involving the deportation of a Canadian boy, Sanford Clark (Eddie Alderson, TV’s One Life to Live). This leads to something else: the discovery of serial killer Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner, Next), who has been responsible for the murders of 20 boys on his chicken ranch in Wineville, Calif. Among the boys Clark identifies as having been kidnapped and taken to the ranch is Walter Collins—something the department wants to bury, despite Ybarra’s efforts to the contrary.

The problem with the film trying to weave all of these threads into a single story is that it causes the movie to shift tone several times. Is this a mother-love drama? A police-corruption exposé? A crime thriller? It’s all these things—as well as a pretty shameless Oscar bid for Angelina Jolie. And it makes for a somewhat meandering movie that seems ready to end nearly as many times as the last Lord of the Rings movie, and would probably benefit from losing 20 to 30 minutes of running time. (It could lose about 10 minutes just by cutting half the number of times Jolie screams, “He’s not my son!”) Unfortunately, it’s as if Eastwood is so fascinated by the material (which is understandable) that he insists on showing us everything—some of which is at least a little embellished for effect. That would matter less if the film didn’t open with the title, “This is a true story.”

The hubris evidenced by that opening statement is pretty astounding—especially in a movie that tries to establish its 1928-period cred by using the old spinning Lucite-globe Universal logo that didn’t exist till 1937. That may be nit-picking, but it’s symptomatic of a film that’s demonstrably not a “true story,” but is instead fairly closely based on one. Aspects of the serial killer have been (thankfully) simplified and telescoped, while the film stacks the deck with attempts at outraging the viewer over what happens to Christine Collins. Sure, torturing her with electroshock treatment fills the viewer with righteous indignation, but 1928 is a little early for that to have happened. It’s appalling enough that the police had this kind of power without goosing the snake-pit quotient. It’s obvious that Eastwood thinks he’s made a film to equal Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), but it ends up feeling closer to Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2006) without being as much overheated fun.

Personally, I had problems with the Jolie character and Jolie’s performance. It feels completely geared to showcase a series of emotional set pieces of the two-fisted school of Oscar-bait acting. As written, the film left me with no real sense of the character. She’s a doting mother, an efficient employee and a formidable, strong-willed adversary, but what else? Who is she really? Is this all there was to her? For me, at least, she remains a cipher, despite Jolie’s powerhouse of emoting.

In spite of my reservations about Changeling, I do recommend the film. It’s at the very least solid filmmaking coming from a single personal vision. Plus, the material is sufficiently compelling to override most of the film’s problems. In short, it’s a great story, but only a good film. Rated R for some violent and disturbing content, and language.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

22 thoughts on “Changeling

  1. Louis

    While I’ve never been able to buy into the idea that Clint Eastwood is one of the great filmmakers—I rate his Million Dollar Baby (2004) as the most embarrassing choice for a Best Picture Oscar ever made—I’ve always admired the fact that he has continued to make his rather old-fashioned movies his way.

    Uhhh, I take it you managed to dodge CRASH? Because if you’ve seen it, and just overlooked its inclusion here as the most emabarrasing Best Picture winner, you’d remember that it’s little more than this: Isn’t racism terrible (WOW! What a revelation!) set to the LOVE BOAT’S rotating narrative rhythms. It’s no contest. Interesting to note, though, that Haggis wrote both film screenplays, right?

    I may not be in sympathy with his aesthetic (if I never hear another piano-tinkling jazz musical score again, that’ll be fine with me), but I’d never deny his status as a serious artist. And I have to admit that his latest film, Changeling—despite a number of problems—is one of his best works.

    Is it still the case that you’ve not seen UNFORGIVEN?

    If it is, I’m voodoo-ing you with a smattering of full-disclosure movie critic guilt. Because that would mean you’ve willingly excluded yourself from being able to offer fully informed commentary on what is the absolute best of Eastwood’s works. Best Picture winners and the Western genre, bias for or against, to the side–UNFORGIVEN is a once-in-a-decade gem. A true American move masterpiece.

    And, if you’ve seen it, I un-voodoo you.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Uhhh, I take it you managed to dodge CRASH?

    I have seen it and, bad as it is (though it struck me as better than it was on first viewing), it did not strike me (and does not strike me) as being as embarassingly bad as Million Dollar Baby — both of which do have competition from The Broadway Melody and The Greatest Show in Earth. But I’ll stick with Million Dollar Baby as the prize winner.

    If it is, I’m voodoo-ing you with a smattering of full-disclosure movie critic guilt.

    Why? I didn’t claim that Changeling is his “absolute best,” merely that it is “one of his best.” Have you seen every single one of Eastwood’s films? By the logic you’re applying you’d have to have in order to weigh in on this yourself.

  3. Louis

    Why? I didn’t claim that Changeling is his “absolute best,” merely that it is “one of his best.” Have you seen every single one of Eastwood’s films? By the logic you’re applying you’d have to have in order to weigh in on this yourself.

    Perhaps you’re reading deeper between the lines of my point than inference necessitates…

    Am I offering fully informed commentary of Coppola’s works if I say his TUCKER is one of his “best works,” though I haven’t seen Coppola’s THE GODFATHER?

    Am I offering fully informed commentary of Don Siegel’s works if I say his MADIGAN is one of his “best works,” though I haven’t seen Siegel’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS?

    Am I offering fully informed commentary of John Huston’s works if I say that his THE MISFITS is one of his “best work’s,” though I haven’t seen Huston’s THE MALTESE FALCON?

    Do GODFATHER, INVASION, & MALTESE not frame that which could be called each respective director’s top tier “best work.” The frame is what lends a reasonable and universally accepted starting point for the critical bar identifying director-specific examples illustrating each artist’s individually realized creative potential?

    And what of viewing UNFORGIVEN?

  4. Ken Hanke

    Am I offering fully informed commentary of Coppola’s works if I say his TUCKER is one of his “best works,” though I haven’t seen Coppola’s THE GODFATHER?

    Fully informed? No. But it may well be informed. It’s simply not “fully informed” unless you’ve seen the man’s entire oeuvre. For it to be “fully informed” you’d have to be factoring in Dementia 13 and You’re a Big Boy Now, too.

    It really depends on how much of a filmmaker’s work you’ve seen — regardless of omissions. Having seen 17 of Eastwood’s directorial efforts, yes, I think it’s fair for me to call Changeling “one of his best films.” It would not be fair to call it “his best film,” however. And I didn’t.

  5. Steven

    “I rate his Million Dollar Baby (2004) as the most embarrassing choice for a Best Picture Oscar ever made”
    I think you’re forgetting about a film called Titanic.

  6. Ken Hanke

    I think you’re forgetting about a film called Titanic.

    I’d never call Titanic good, but I can at least understand how — based on sheer behemoth size and its astonishing popularity — that happened.

  7. Louis

    Fully informed? No. But it may well be informed. It’s simply not “fully informed” unless you’ve seen the man’s entire oeuvre. For it to be “fully informed” you’d have to be factoring in Dementia 13 and You’re a Big Boy Now, too.

    I’m interpreting this quite “literal” point-of-view to translate into the position that if one hasn’t seen what is widely held in respected circles as a film classic like, say, THE GODFATHER and UNFORGIVEN, that that fact doesn’t mitigate the degree to which that commentator is well informed about said artist’s “best works?” If this is so, we’ll have to respectfully disagree. (Heartbreaking, I know).

    In the case of both films, the title is considered to be a classic of its genre and each respective director’s crowning achievement.

    A person can’t–not in good faith, anyway–apply the aforementioned critical-commentary exclusions to having seen DEMENTIA 13 and YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW, while not having seen THE GODFATHER, can they?

    It really depends on how much of a filmmaker’s work you’ve seen—regardless of omissions. Having seen 17 of Eastwood’s directorial efforts, yes, I think it’s fair for me to call Changeling “one of his best films.”

    How can one argue that it depends on how much of a filmmaker’s work a person has seen while simultaneously stipulating that the omissions are irrelevent? Don’t the omissions add up to equal how m-u-c-h a person hasn’t seen within a given artist’s body of work?

    Moreover, are we talking the number of omissions or the nature of the omissions? I suspect you’re talking the number and I’m talking the nature of those omissions. In other words, I’m arguing that the content (e.g., THE GODFATHER is an American classic) trumps quantity sheer quantity (e.g., a person who’s seen DEMENTIA 13 and YOU”RE A BIG BOY NOW, but not GODFATHER). Saying THE GODFATHER, and UNFORGIVEN, are classics is not meant to necessarily convey my personal opinion about these films. Rather, how they stand up over time in the unforgiving spotlight of historical context. Whether you or I like them or not is moot–they’re film classics.

    So, no, you and I don’t need to see the entire quantity that comprises Eastwood’s works to comment on his “best works.” Of course, it doesn’t hurt. What I’m saying is that if a person is going to point toward a screen icon’s “best works” his or her point of view would have increased clarity and gravitas if he/she had the advantage of balancing against what is regarded as the artist’s very best work.

  8. Ken Hanke

    Louis, you put a lot more faith in the whole idea of “recognized classics” than I do. I personally don’t even feel that a film should be truly measured in that range until it’s at least 20 years old — something that Unforgiven is a few years shy of achieving. I’m not ready to put it — or any film shy of the 20 year mark — into some hallowed pantheon of “undisputed classics.” The whole history of film and film appreciation is a shifting thing. Just as one example, for years and years A Night at the Opera was cited as the ultimate in Marx Brothers movies, and for years and years Pauline Kael kept saying, no, it wasn’t, but that much-reviled Duck Soup (a film generally cited as a disaster that lost them their Paramount contract and their career until Irving Thalberg came along and pointed out what they were doing “wrong”) was. Today, you’ll find very few who don’t agree with Kael’s point of view. Take another example, the Astaire-Rogers film Top Hat used to be their “unconditionally accepted” masterpiece. Not any more, the previously considered lesser Swing Time has replaced it. In the 1960s Eistenstein’s Potemkin almost invariably showed up in the top five of lists of all-time great movies. It had then stood up to the “unforgiving spotlight of historical context” for 40 years or more at that time. You almost never see it on such lists today. For that matter, there are some — especially among hardcore fans — who will tell you that Coppola’s real masterpiece is The Conversation.

    I simply don’t think that Unforgiven has been around long enough to put in this unquestioned category. I’m not even questioning it, because I’ve never seen it, though 17 films of Eastwood’s strongly suggests to me that I’m not likely to fall in a faint over its greatness. That remains to be seen. I’ll get around to it someday, but that’s really a separate issue.

    Bottom line is that, I see nothing wrong in me calling Changeling “one of Eastwood’s best works,” having seen a pretty large cross-section of those works, including such acknowledged key works as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Bird, White Hunter Black Heart and Mystic River. I have not said it’s better than Unforgiven.

    If you’d seen Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The African Queen, Beat the Devil, Moby Dick, and Wise Blood, I’d have no problem with you calling Prizzi’s Honor “one of his best films,” even though — for whatever reason — you’d never seen The Maltese Falcon, so long as you didn’t weigh in on Falcon.

  9. Steven

    “I’d never call Titanic good, but I can at least understand how—based on sheer behemoth size and its astonishing popularity—that happened.”
    So does that mean you could understand The Dark Knight winning best picture?

  10. Ken Hanke

    So does that mean you could understand The Dark Knight winning best picture?

    Well, it doesn’t have the size of Titanic and it lacks that immediate (faux) weightiness that comes with historical material, and those definitely weigh against its chances. But could I understand it? I doubt it, because I can’t understand why so many people think this cheerless, lumpily structured, nihilistic film is the bee’s knees to begin with. That said, I wouldn’t be especially surprised if it did win, and I still wouldn’t find it as embarassing as Million Dollar Baby.

  11. Steven

    I would have to agree with you on Million Dollar Baby though. I was shocked when they announced that as the winner for best picture.

    I can definitely see Heath Ledger winning for Best Supporting Actor though.

  12. Louis

    That said, I wouldn’t be especially surprised if it did win, and I still wouldn’t find it as embarassing as Million Dollar Baby.

    I would have to agree with you on Million Dollar Baby though. I was shocked when they announced that as the winner for best picture.

    I can definitely see Heath Ledger winning for Best Supporting Actor though.

    Such observations should be grounded in the context that were–for better or worse–the 2004 nominees for Best Picture.

    THE AVIATOR: Was/is the Academy any more or less in “lust” with Scorcese than Eastwood? Though he does have his moments, defend NEW YORK NEW YORK, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHIRST, & CAPE FEAR and then tell me what a great filmmaker Scorcese is. THE DEPARTED–which he finally won for–was a scene-for-scene rip-off of INFERNAL AFFAIRS; a superior “action” movie, by the way. The man has carved out a niche by populating his films with a steady stream of repugnant characters you wouldn’t want to know, meet, or stand next to on a city corner while waiting to cross the street.

    FINDING NEVERLAND: I think most would argee, it’s good–but it ain’t great and no one will remember it in 5+ years.

    RAY: Foxx’s performance is memorable and he deserved the Best Actor award. The movie itself is a straightforward Bio–with the exception of the fact the film didn’t skirt Charles’ heroin use–that pulls on the heart strings and builds its subject up to be transcendent. The business with the visions and him being able to “see” his dead mother in the final dream was t-o-o much; too heavy-handed. As if we didn’t quite get at this point that Charles was a boy-has-innocence, boy-loses-innocence, boy-gets-innocence back again. The fact is that he was at the peak of his artistic prowess, and most complex, when he was a heroin addict. The epilogue underminds the momentum of the last 25% of the movie. Redemption is not as sweet as portrayed by Hackford. Too bad it wasn’t called THE LAST TEMPTATION OF RAY CHARLES.

    SIDEWAYS: During it’s life-cyle, one of the most over-rated movies in a generation. One of the most pompous, elitist, & self-important pieces of so-called artistic moviemaking to slither into my DVD player. Though Hanke gave it 4-stars, my memory is that you have since expressed resounding regret for having succumbed to the hype. Do I have this right? Anyway, Payne’s ELECTION is far superior.

    I’m not defending MILLION DOLLAR BABY–nobody’s that deranged, but is there a film in this arbitrary bunch that was head-and-shoulders above it.

    Of course, none of this should imply that the these were the best five movies nominated for Best Picture in 2004. No way. But is that ever the case in any year?–no way.

    What got left out in 2004 that shouldn’t’ve? How about INFERNAL AFFAIRS for starters?

    As far as this business with Ledger goes, it’s much ado about nothing. Performance-wise, it’s an exhibition–a very good one–but nothing more. He doesn’t deserve to win any more or less than Nicholson’s Joker-turn did (a performance that disappointly seems to have gotten overshadowed in all the current hubbub) or Pacino’s go as Big Boy Caprice. They’re all comic-strip-world performances that, yes, are entertaining, but by their very nature are ROGER RABBIT “cartoonish.” I don’t care that Ledger “lost himself” in the role. So what? Does that, in and of itself, mean the performance deserves history’s arbitrary stamp of approval. He’s chewing scenery. He’s chewing it well, but he overshadows the layers of the story the Joker is inhabiting. It’s like, what if an R-Rated Wile E. Coyote went off his meds?–presto, the Joker!. I guess we can be thankful Morgan Freeman didn’t narrate the suffocatingly nihilistic festivities.

    To me, it’s not that BATMAN is the most successful cinematic superhero that’s so compelling, but rather that he’s so utterly ineffective at the mission to which he has universally focused his life. He’s a superhero that’s devoted his life to revenge–and, with that, he’s failing miserably.

    How’s this for an odd comparison?: THE DARK KNIGHT is like watching a cross between THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE and Eastwood’s TIGHTROPE–i.e., the lines that separate the
    so-called “hero” and the villain are blurred beyond recognition.

  13. Ken Hanke

    SIDEWAYS: During it’s life-cyle, one of the most over-rated movies in a generation. One of the most pompous, elitist, & self-important pieces of so-called artistic moviemaking to slither into my DVD player. Though Hanke gave it 4-stars, my memory is that you have since expressed resounding regret for having succumbed to the hype. Do I have this right?

    I believe you’ll find that I had reservations about it from the onset. The review opens with, “I haven’t felt this out of the loop since people were falling all over themselves about Lost in Translation. With apologies to Andrew Sarris, Richard Corliss and all the other critics who are joined in a chorus of unstinting praise of this film, Sideways fell far short of blowing me away. It’s not that I dislike this latest offering from Alexander Payne. It just doesn’t strike me as deserving of such accolades.” So while I found merit in it, I can’t really lay claim to having fallen for the hype — if it can even be called hype, since it wasn’t studio generated. I can’t say I’ve actually rethought the film, because I’ve never even slightly felt compelled to see it again.

    I’m not defending MILLION DOLLAR BABY–nobody’s that deranged, but is there a film in this arbitrary bunch that was head-and-shoulders above it.

    Yes. The Aviator. It’s not a great film, but comparatively speaking, it’s the clear winner for me. And I’m not a hardcore Scorsese fan. He’s a filmmaker I admire without generally enjoying, largely owing to his choice of subject matter (there is something wrong with me in my lack of fascination with crime sagas). I generally don’t care about the characters he focuses on (which is perhaps why I’ve never gotten the greatness of The Godfather and its offshoots — I just don’t care).

    In any case, The Aviator isn’t drowning in faux-important trendy-pic-of the year like Sideways. It’s not a dull biopic basic like Ray. It’s not a gooey biopic whitewash job like Finding Neverland. And it’s not overripe melodramatic rubbish like Million Dollar Baby.

    Of course, none of this should imply that the these were the best five movies nominated for Best Picture in 2004. No way. But is that ever the case in any year?–no way.

    Agreed, but that wasn’t the point. The point, for me, is that Million Dollar Baby is uniquely embarassing as a choice. Put it this way, it’s the only one of the lot where I kept bursting out laughing at inappropriate moments.

    I did search out my 10 best list from 2004, which, by the way, would almost certainly have some changes were I to do it again today –

    1. I Heart Huckabees
    2. Kinsey
    3. The Phantom of the Opera
    4. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
    5. Bright Young Things
    6. A Very Long Engagement
    7. Garden State
    8. The Dreamers
    9. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
    10. Closer

    Today — without seeing what I’ve forgotten from that year — Life Aquatic would be much higher. So would The Dreamers. Bright Young Things and Garden State might well disappear altogether. But the lack of the five Oscar nominees would remain the same. I notice that The Aviator is the only one that rated an honorable mention.

    As far as this business with Ledger goes, it’s much ado about nothing. Performance-wise, it’s an exhibition–a very good one–but nothing more.

    I think it’s a bit more than that, but I don’t think it’s the end-all be-all of anything, and I still believe it owes a lot to Brad Dourif’s playing of the Gemini Killer in The Exorcist III. I think it also stands out in the context of the film in much the same way that Cillian Murphy’s performance stood out in Batman Begins, i.e., he’s the only one there who seems to be in on the fact that this ain’t Shakespeare.

  14. Will

    I actually had no idea that Angelina Jolie was the star until I saw the ending credits. I was shocked. Maybe I need new glasses, but I didn’t think she looked like…herself. Instead, she looked like a nice lady.

  15. Brett

    Dear Ken,

    Years ago I found you as a movie reviewer after I had a terrible experience at the movies. The film I saw was so miserable I came home — furious at the time wasted — and went to Rotten Tomatoes to find a critic who hated the film as much as I had. Trouble was, there weren’t any.

    Until I found your review. The film? Million Dollar Baby. You spoke truth to power. You said the film blew. It did. Big.

    So, you can imagine my disappointment when I — trusting your review — went to see Changeling. This film was every bit as worhtless as Million Dollar Baby. Maybe worse. I’m very, very disappointed. I’m wondering what’s going on with you that you missed this one so badly?

  16. Ken Hanke

    Well, Brett, I’m not sure I can answer that, since I don’t find Changeling even close to the awfulness of Million Dollar Baby — maybe because it doesn’t seem to think it’s so significant. I don’t know. I do find the story itself sufficiently compelling to put it over, though the further I get away from it, the more I find Angelina Jolie’s breast-beating an embarassing display of histrionics. Maybe I’ll be able to redeem myself for you with Gran Torino.

  17. Brett

    Dear Ken,
    Thanks for the response. I just needed to vent my frustrations.

    I come to your website to read your reviews so I don’t ever find myself an hour-and-a-half deep in some horribly obvious and worthless pandering fest.

    Please butcher the films that need butchering. Films, like any great art, should not be specifically designed for the moron masses.

    Thanks for all your work.

    Best,
    Brett

  18. Ken Hanke

    I just needed to vent my frustrations

    And you’re quite welcome to do so.

    Please butcher the films that need butchering. Films, like any great art, should not be specifically designed for the moron masses.

    I’m not about to argue that, but then I’m the guy who wanted to call this column An Elitist Bastard Goes to the Movies.

    Thanks for all your work.

    Thanks for reading it — and liking it.

  19. T_REX

    This is a late responce but I just saw the film tonight at Asheville Pizza and must say that I kinda sorta might/might not agree with you on this one. I love the film but there is so much to take in. ( Like “Monster Ball”, its a very good film that I dont want to see again because it is so disturbing) There are so many stories tangled in this web.The story of the investigation is the most interesting and I feel the mother-son bit should have been a subplot.

    I do think Eastwood is a great director and yes this film is a huge piece of oscar bait for Angelina ( so hot she is not even human ) Jolie but none the less she does a great job.

  20. Ken Hanke

    Well, Oscar-bait or not, it’s looking less likely with every set of awards that comes out that it’s going to snag her one.

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