Watching this film is like riding an emotional roller coaster; I was absolutely drained by the experience. Clint Eastwood's latest directorial effort is a movie of impressive emotional impact; it draws you in, makes you care, and allows you to become a participant in its tale of loss, corruption, hope, and rage. It is a powerful journey with characters whose lives will stick with you long after the last credits roll. Just don't mistake this for a remake of the 1980 horror film The Changeling — that is a completely different beast.
Changeling is based on the true story of a woman whose son disappeared under mysterious circumstances and her crusade to find him and bring him home alive. Just how closely the events portrayed in the film resemble reality is anyone's guess. Any film based on a true story is invariably going to be "punched up" to make the events more dramatic in order to capture the audience. As we all know, reality is boring. If you want reality, all you need do is step out your front door. In order to make reality more inviting on the screen it needs to be amped up a little, made bigger than life. I believe the broad strokes are accurate, but the finer points have likely been adjusted. Still, true or not, this is a tragic story that grabs your heart and squeezes.
What makes this movie so good, and also demonstrates Eastwood's skill, is the way the story unfolds. The story is one perfectly set up to be a traditional thriller, but that is not what is done here. The approach certainly has some thriller elements, but it chooses to allow the story to unfold, unspooling its drama through outrage, protest, and a desire to find the truth.
In March of 1928, Christine Collins went to work and when she returned home her 9-year-old son, Walter, was missing. A police investigation followed. After months of searching Walter was found in Illinois. An ecstatic Christine could not wait to be reunited with her son. There was only one problem — the boy who stepped off the train was not Walter. Christine said as much and the police just thought she was distraught and not thinking clearly. They stuck to their story despite the facts: the youngster didn't know his school teacher, he was three inches shorter upon his return, and his teeth didn't match his dental records. Still, the police stood by their story that this was Walter, thus ending the search that Christine fought to keep open.
That may sound like enough, but there is much more to her story, including issues with the police department as a whole, all helping to take this tale to a larger, even more tragic level. You see, the police force was corrupt, taking their guns and hitting the streets. They planted evidence, forced false testimony, killed whoever got in their way, and were suffering from a poor public image. It is this story of a lost and found boy that is positioned to be their saving grace, to help get them back in favor with the people and to reveal they had the wrong boy… well, you get the picture. This lands Christine in the psychiatric ward where she could be kept quiet, away from the public eye.
Believe it or not, there is even more to it than that. There is the work of a local reverend who has a radio show that regularly targets the corrupt police department, Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), an important figure in the big picture. We also have the other women on the psych ward whose only crimes were being an annoyance to a police officer. However, there is one element that overshadows all others — the events that take place at the Northcott farm. These revelations cast a pall over everything else, and I admit to being shocked by what is revealed. You see, the trailer hinted at none of this, and it just gave the film that much more of an impact.
The cast does a fantastic job of bringing this story and time period to life. Leading the way is Angelina Jolie in a role that initially struck me as Oscar bait. I know, that is a loaded statement, but it is a feeling that quickly faded as Jolie inhabited this woman, bringing a powerful performance to bear in this highly emotional story. John Malkovich is solid, once again, as the reverend who takes on Christine's mission. Not to be forgotten is Jeffrey Donovan as Captain Jones, the cocksure cop who believes he is in the right; he has to believe it and no one else can convince him otherwise. Oh yes, the most charismatic and frightening of characters is portrayed by Jason Butler Harner as Gordon Northcott, a man whose presence on screen commands your attention as he inhabits the persona of a killer blessed with a phony charm.
Clint Eastwood turns in yet another excellent directorial turn. He has a style that is as distinct as it is not flashy. He brings this era to life in fine fashion, keeping the story and characters on track through its intense story and even pacing. However, what I found surprising was that he was working from a script by J. Michael Straczynski. I am most familiar with him as a science fiction (Babylon 5) and comic book writer. This is another side of a man who knows his way around a keyboard.
Bottom line. This movie had an impact well beyond what I was expecting. It is dramatic, frightening, and undeniably compelling. It is a true life story that will put you through the emotional wringer.