“CHANGELING” (2008) Review

“CHANGELING” (2008) Review

Set in Los Angeles of the late 1920s, “CHANGELING” is based upon a true story about a single mother who realized that the boy returned to her after a kidnapping is not her son. After confronting the city authorities, they vilified her as delusional and an unfit mother. The movie’s events were related to the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, an infamous kidnapping and murder case that was uncovered in 1928.

J. Michael Straczynski, creator and producer of the Award winning science-fiction television series, ”BABYLON 5”, had been tipped off by a contact at the Los Angeles City Hall about the case of Christine Collins and the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. He wrote a screenplay based upon the case and submitted it Brian Grazer and Ron Howard of Imagine Entertainment. Howard was slated to direct the film. But due to a scheduling conflict, Howard was unable to accept the assignment and it was offered to Clint Eastwood. Academy Award winning actress Angelina Jolie was cast as the anguished mother, Christine Collins. The cast also included John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly, Amy Ryan, Jason Butler Harner, Colm Feore, and Geoff Pierson.

I might as well say it. I really enjoyed ”CHANGELING”. I enjoyed it more than I thought possible. When I first learned about the movie, I thought it would end up as some missing child story with a science-fiction twist. After all, the movie had been scripted by Straczynski. I eventually discovered that the movie was simply based upon a true life crime that occurred in Los Angeles in the late 1920s. And since the movie, which happened to be two hours and 41 minutes long, was directed by Clint Eastwood . . . well, I feared that it would turn into another one of his slow-paced films that would leave me struggling to stay conscious. Thankfully, it did not happen. As he had done in ”FLAGS OF OUR FATHER”, Eastwood managed to forego his usual snail-like pacing and do Straczynski’s superb script justice with what I believe is one of his best works.

”CHANGELING” is a very engrossing story about single mother Christine Collins’ (Jolie) efforts to find her missing son Walter and deal with the antipathy and lack of interest of the Los Angeles Police Department. Collins’ interactions with the LAPD and especially Police Captain J.J. Jones (Donovan) were especially fascinating. The story took an even darker tone when a more competent police officer named Detective Ybarra (Kelly) made a connection to the disappearance of Collins’ son to a possible case involving a serial killer of young boys. Judging from what I have read about Christine Collins and the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, Eastwood and Straczynski did a superb job of recapturing both the era and the actual case. Mind you, the movie is not completely accurate. After all, Jolie must be at least 15 years younger than the real Christine Collins was in 1928. But I am speaking of a Hollywood film, not a documentary.

Judging by the excellent performances in the film, it was easy for me to see that the cast really benefitted from Eastwood’s direction and Straczynski’s script. But to be honest, not even the best director or script could ever guarantee a good performance. Which is why I feel that ”CHANGELING” was very lucky in its cast . . . especially with its leading lady. Despite winning two Golden Globe awards, a Screen Actors Guild award and an Oscar, Angelina Jolie has never really developed a reputation as a first-rate actress. Sometimes I wonder if the media and the public are so blinded by her looks and image that they fail to realize how truly talented she is. I would certainly rate Christine Collins as one of Jolie’s best performances. She managed to completely submerge into her role of the ladylike Mrs. Collins who has to overcome her natural reticence to resist the L.A.P.D.’s lie that the boy returned to her some five months after her son’s disappearance is the latter. Although most moviegoers and critics tend to be impressed by emotional and showy performances, I tend to be impressed by more subtle acting. And there are two scenes that featured Jolie at her subtle best – one featured an interview Collins had with an analyst inside a city psychiatric ward and the other centered around Captain Jones’ last efforts to convince her that the boy found in Illinois and delivered to her was her son Walter. Thankfully, Hollywood rewarded Jolie with an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. It is only a pity that she did not win.

Jolie received strong support from four actors in particular – John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly and Jason Butler Harner. Malkovich gave a solid performance as a Los Angeles evangelist named Reverend Gustav Briegleb who has been outspoken against the Los Angeles Police Department’s incompetence and corruption. His soliloquy about the police department not only gave me chills, it also reminded me that not much in Los Angeles politics have not changed in eighty years. In his chilling performance as Police Captain J.J. Jones, Jeffrey Donovan proved his versatility as an actor in a performance that bordered on subtle intimidation. Michael Kelly portrayed Detective Ybarra, the L.A. cop who discovered the link between Walter Collins and a serial killer . . . and he did so with a solid performance that matched Malkovich’s. The one actor who really impressed me was Jason Butler Harner, who gave a creepy performance as serial killer Gordon Northcott. The filmmakers had hired Harner due to the latter’s physical resemblance to the real Northcott. Physical resemblance aside, the actor’s performance could have easily become over-the-top. But Harner managed to inject a strong creepiness into the role without turning the character into a caricature.

I did have a few quibbles about “CHANGELING”. Earlier I had marveled at the movie’s pacing despite Eastwood’s role as director and the 141 minute running time. And I stand by every word. But I must admit there was one point in the film in which it threatened to drag . . . namely the last fifteen or twenty minutes. One could suggest that the movie’s finale could have easily been deleted. But considering what had been revealed in those final moments, I doubt that would have been wise. One last quibble I had was Oscar nominee Amy Ryan’s role as a prostitute and fellow inmate of Collins’ at a city psychiatric ward. The filmmakers might as well have credited her appearance as a cameo. Despite Ryan’s excellent performance, her appearance in the film struck me nothing more than a waste of time.

No movie is perfect and as I had pointed out, “CHANGELING” had a few imperfections. But in the end it turned out to be a fascinating look into a period in the history of Los Angeles. Thanks to Eastwood’s direction, Straczynski’s script, Angelina Jolie and a very talented supporting cast; “CHANGELING” turned out to be an engrossing tale of crime and corruption that has already made my list of favorite movies from 2008.

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