So let’s get this straight: in late-1920s Los Angeles, the young son of a working single mother disappears. Months later the police, desperate for a good headline because they’re corrupt and lazy, tell the mother they found her child, only it’s not her child. When she tells them they made a mistake, they force her to take the child and tell her that she’s imagining things. When she refuses to let it go, they lock her away in a psycho ward. At this point, some grisly details involving another juvenile case come into light, suggesting that the missing pieces to the story are even worse than the ones they’ve already uncovered.
Who the hell wants to see that movie?
It’s the cheapest form of manipulation there is – threatening the lives of children. If it were a political attack ad, they’d call it fearmongering, and that’s “Changeling” in a nutshell. The events behind the story may be true, and that is tragic, along with being a tad ridiculous (you’ve never seen such a one-sided movie in your life). Watching the dramatization of those events, though, isn’t electrifying, or gripping, or heart-wrenching, or any of those Oscar-friendly buzz words usually associated with this kind of movie; it’s miserable.
Angelina Jolie is the single mother, named Christine Collins, and when she’s called in to work on an off day, her son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) is not there when she comes home. Five months later, she is told that the police have picked up a boy in Illinois that matches Walter’s description, but when Christine goes to meet him at the train station – surrounded by reporters at the behest of a police department desperate to get some good ink – Christine tells the police that the boy is not her son and they, fearing public embarrassment, force to take the child anyway. Her primary dealings from there are with the extremely powerful LAPD Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), and despite some rather substantial evidence proving this boy they found is not Walter, he chooses to vilify Christine as an unfit mother with mental problems. When Christine refuses to relent, Jones ships her off to a psycho ward as a Code 12 patient. It is here that she meets Carol Dexter (Amy Ryan), another Code 12 patient who shows her how to survive inside the nut house. Meanwhile, on the outside, local pastor and anti-corruption activist Gustav Brieglab (John Malkovich) is fighting to get Christine justice, while LA’s last good cop, Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly), follows a tip on a missing child from Canada, and makes a shocking discovery.
This is every mother’s worst nightmare of a movie, which again begs the question: who on earth would pay good money to subject themselves to this kind of misery? Is there anything good to take from the experience? Meanwhile, the LAPD are so corrupt and blind to their egregious mistake that it’s like watching John Waters as the hypno-therapist in “Hairspray” (the original, not the musical remake), more cartoon than struggle against authority. The only way it could be more cartoonish is if Christine’s only hope for escape was to get Jones to say his name backwards.
Sure, director Clint Eastwood makes it look good (and sound good, as he scored the movie as well), and Jolie handles the whole Mother, Interrupted thing with the right balance of reserve and heartbreak, but that does not make “Changeling” any less insufferable. There is no feeling of relief or sense of justice when it’s all over; just exasperation that it took that much effort for common sense to prevail. There are also a couple key threads that are dropped in favor of poking the audience with a sharp stick (what about the neighbors that were supposed to check up on Walter, or the boy’s claim that the police coached him?), and when all is said and done – some 140 minutes later – “Changeling” is a damning indictment of the sexist conditions of a time that few people are alive today to remember. Perhaps it’s better that way.(2 / 5)