Film Review: Changeling

A police cover-up sends a distraught mother to a mental institution. Careful account of a real-life incident in Los Angeles provides an acting showcase for Angelina Jolie.

The story of Christine Collins, a single mother who lost her son and then was victimized by the police, reopens a raw wound in the history of Los Angeles. Officials claimed that the kidnapping case was solved when they handed Collins an imposter child. When the mother complained, she was first ignored and then imprisoned in a mental institution. Thanks to a crusading minister, her case reached the public, resulting in the suspension or dismissal of several civic figures.

As depicted by screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, the real-life crime becomes the equivalent of a James Ellroy novel, one filled with venal cops, sadistic killers and hapless innocents. Judicious and even-tempered as it opens, Changeling mutates into a horror film, then a courtroom melodrama, each iteration a little more implausible, a little less satisfying. The film's one constant is Angelina Jolie, determined to wring every tear from her put-upon character.

The story takes place in 1928, a time frame that forces Jolie into unflattering, post-flapper clothes and cloche hats. It's a look that seriously dilutes her physical appeal, and that may have affected her approach to the role. The film Collins is one step away from saint—hard-working, humble, forgiving. Home life, complete with an angelic child, is as hushed and austere as a church. Interaction between Collins and her nine-year-old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) seems cool, at times distant. Even when her son goes missing, Collins' manner is calm, reserved.

For most of the film, director Clint Eastwood maintains the straightforward style that has become his hallmark, adopting an objective viewpoint and eschewing elaborate cinematic devices. Unfortunately, Eastwood is hemmed in somewhat by the facts of the Collins case, which seem absurd today. (Where was Walter's birth certificate, for example?) Changeling's narrow scope doesn't make a good argument against pervasive injustices in the legal system of the time, it just reduces issues to a bad cop (Jeffrey Donovan as Captain J.J. Jones) and a worse psychiatrist (Denis O'Hare as Dr. Jonathan Steele).

Most viewers today already agree that it's bad to lock up innocent mothers in loony bins, so Changeling doesn't have a lot to prove when it threatens Collins with sedatives and shock treatments. Eastwood handles scenes with Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), her supporter and eventual rescuer, in a diffident manner that fails to build up much suspense, despite a cliffhanging climax. Instead, much of the second half of the film is handed over to a serial killer who has dismembered as many as 20 young boys.

How these scenes of horrific torture and murder, or the dogged investigation of cop Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly), apply to Collins' legal problems remains unclear. For that matter, why does Changeling spend so much time detailing a prison execution? Would Ron Howard, originally announced as director and now credited as a producer, have exerted more effort to tie the script's narrative lines together?

Jolie, who won an Oscar playing an institutionalized patient in Girl, Interrupted, gives a thoughtful, serious performance as Collins. The role may have been more convincing if Jolie allowed a bit of doubt, a sign of weakness, into her acting. Eastwood elicits steady performances from the rest of the large cast, and gets exceptional support from his crew. Despite all this talent, Changeling still comes off as a period version of a movie on Lifetime.