Unmoved 

Strong acting can’t save Changeling

By all accounts, Changeling, the latest addition to Clint Eastwood’s cinematic canon, is headed for the red carpets and podiums of the 81st annual Academy Awards this February. The film almost rose to the top at Cannes in May, but was edged out for the Palme d’Or by The Class. Major film critics and cineophiles of the blogosphere alike agree that Changeling is bound for award glory, even if only in nomination form. Here in Missoula, judging by the post-show buzz, there was more agreement with this general accord: It was simply good, and my mother loved it.

What’s not to like? A period drama set in Los Angeles in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Changeling has a strong ensemble cast including some major acting and star power: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich and the brilliant Amy Ryan, just to name the standouts. And they do deliver excellent performances. Jolie, shot in the typical Eastwood style of shadows and light, is intense, engaging, even, at times, riveting. The storyline, based on the “true story” of the infamous “Wineville Chicken-coop Murders,” is full of the stuff of Oscar gold: A single working mother whose child disappears struggles heroically against official corruption, against men and institutions who encode her as just another “hysterical” woman, against maddening indifference, and against her own retiring nature and broken heart. Eastwood, a strong Oscar-generating director who has given us great, sometimes brilliant films in the last five years (the incredible Mystic River primary among them), uses his spare and efficient realist style to effect a detail-rich and hauntingly shot Los Angeles, and he gives his actors, especially Jolie, the kind of screen time and space that allows them to make absolutely clear the emotional cost of the events of the story. 

What’s not to like is, unfortunately, a rather long list. Despite the complexity of the story of Christine Collins and her long and painful struggle for justice and the return of her son, the film reduces the tale to a moral melodrama in which characters are almost wholly without ambiguity or human dimension. They seem, rather, like the cardboard cutouts of the 1920s serials that Changeling itself makes reference to in the course of its story.

Christine’s character suffers and persists admirably, but remains from beginning to end only the “good mother,” a point the film makes everywhere clear, but perhaps most annoyingly in Eastwood’s score. Most notably, the music melodically echoes Al Jolson’s cloying  “Mother of Mine” from The Jazz Singer (1927): “Mother of mine, when friends all doubt me, I still have you: Somehow you’re still the same.”

Eastwood’s Christine Collins is a paragon of maternal virtue–from beginning to end, the same. The Presbyterian preacher and radio broadcaster, Gustav Briegleb (Malkovich) is an equally one-dimensional guardian angel who undertakes Christine’s cause in his fight to clear the LAPD of its Prohibition-era corruption. The cops, for their part, are—with one notable exception—unrelievedly amoral, image-conscious and pitiless.

Like his preferred cinematographic style, Eastwood crafts the story of Changeling in stark black and white moral tones.  He does so, however, with none of the subtlety and nuance that made the struggle for justice and truth in the face of loss and opposition so compelling in films like Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby—movies where good and evil shaded into one another and compelled the viewer to contemplate moral choices. In this film we’re allowed to identify in uncomplicated ways with righteous maternal love and against institutional corruption. If Christine Collins remains the same throughout the run of the film, so do we as viewers, for the film poses no real moral dilemmas or questions for us to consider after the credits have rolled.

Another problem the film brings with it is a double plot—Christine’s loss intertwined with the horrible murders in Wineville. The two stories circumstantially and historically intersect, but they do so in strangely disconnected ways onscreen. At about the 90-minute mark of Changeling the “quest for justice” plot gives way to the detective and serial killer film genre, with the end result a series of badly stitched together scenes that often give the impression that two movies have been spliced together using the logic of the famous Grindhouse theaters. The most baffling of these involves a lengthy visual exploration of a hanging that is without any real justifiable thematic, aesthetic or narrative relationship to the rest of the film.

I hate to say it—and my own mother won’t like this—but Changeling is, in all of its length, cumbersome plotting and unambiguous moral preachiness, a bit of a bore. My mother, on the other hand, wants to see the film again, so you might want to seek her out if you’re dying to see it. Just so you know, she always buys the popcorn and soda. She has strong principles that way.

Changeling is currently screening at the Carmike 10.
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