The first signs of trouble in Clint Eastwood’s period drama Changeling arrive early. Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single mother in 1928 Los Angeles, readies her nine-year-old son, Walter, for school; heads to her job as a telephone operator supervisor (nice detail: the roller skates she wears to glide quickly from one end of the phone bank to the other); promises Walter she’ll take him to a movie on Saturday; etc. In his better films, Eastwood has taken care with such scene-setting, meticulously establishing the moods of working-class Boston or the rituals of the gym. Here, by contrast, there’s a rushed, tentative quality to Eastwood’s direction, perhaps even a slight discomfort with the rhythms of female domesticity. The exposition is too obviously expository. It’s a small fault, but it portends larger ones.
Christine is forced to cancel the movie date with Walter when she’s called to fill in for a sick colleague. She leaves the boy alone at home and, when she returns late in the day, he’s vanished. The police investigate but find nothing. It is five long, desperate months before her prayers are answered by a call from the LAPD informing her they’ve found her son traveling in Illinois with an adult drifter.
There’s just one problem: The boy who arrives back in Los Angeles is not her son. This fact is immediately evident to her (and to us), but the boy claims to be Walter and the police, eager to close the case, agree with him. “You’re in shock, and he’s changed,” the dismissive police captain (Jeffrey Donovan) hectors Christine, persuading her to take the boy home “on a trial basis.” There, Christine can’t help but notice that this stranger is three inches shorter than Walter was at the time of his abduction and that, unlike her son, he is circumcised. The police are unmoved. They send a doctor to affirm, again, that the boy is Walter; they respond to her declarations that of course she’d know if he were Walter, she’s his mother, by arguing that she is therefore “in no position to be objective.” When she finally tries to go public with her predicament, the captain has her locked in a brutal mental facility filled with other women who have, in one way or another, annoyed the police.
This is, to put it mildly, a fantastical story, the kind of dark, absurdist allegory that we might have expected to ooze from the pen of Kafka. It is also, remarkably, a true (or at least trueish) story, as the film announces in its opening moments. But it is not enough to declare such improbable material historically accurate and leave it at that. It is Eastwood’s burden to make it feel true, to overcome our skepticism at its innate outlandishness, and in this, Changeling is a singular failure. Scene after scene, twist after twist--and this is a film of many twists--rings false. I have been a fan (and defender) of Eastwood for as long as I can remember, but Changeling is a genuine stinker.
Some of the blame for this must fall on screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski. A TV veteran best known as the creator of “Babylon 5,” Straczynski struggles to find a key that does not sound like, well, science fiction. But the ordinarily sure-handed Eastwood provides little help. The film is so stylized it could at times be mistaken for a Coen brothers excursion--the too-perfect compositions; the vibrant color (Jolie’s lips look as though they were painted with the blood she used to wear in a pendant around her neck) transposed with muted, nearly black-and-white backdrops; the accents that push toward caricature (Donovan’s Irish brogue, in particular, seems to grow more pronounced as the movie progresses).
The film’s (many) villains are such exaggerated grotesques that in the end they are less frightening than profoundly irritating. In addition to Donovan, we’re treated to Colm Feore as the police chief, Denis O’Hare as the head doctor at the asylum, and a parade of Ratched-y nurses. Ironically, the least laughable portrait of evil is offered by relative newcomer Jason Butler Harner, who brings an unnervingly innocent charm to the role of, yes, a child-murdering psychopath who shows up midway through the film. On the rather less-populated White Hat side of the ledger, John Malkovich is cast against type, successfully though not memorably, as the Presbyterian minister who champions Christine’s cause, and Amy Ryan is characteristically appealing in the otherwise generic role of Feisty, Kind-Hearted Prostitute.
As for Jolie, her strong performance is put to weak use. To begin with, she faces the difficult task of creating a three-dimensional character in the two-dimensional world Eastwood and Straczynski have provided her. There are a limited number of ways to respond to sneering male condescension and she exhausts them fairly quickly. But Christine is a problematic character as well, too strong and stoic (one senses why Eastwood was attracted to this story) to have plausibly been badgered into taking home a boy she knew was not hers, yet too passive to make a compelling protagonist. For all her heroic endurance, this is a woman to whom things happen, not one who makes things happen.
I will not reveal the rest of the film’s monumentally overlong plot. The swerves it takes are consistently unreal (however real they may have been) and generally quite ugly, but they’re pretty much all it has to offer on the 140-minute journey to its hollow, cloying conclusion. (The last word spoken in the film is “hope.”) By the time it’s over, Changeling has proven itself not merely a contender for the worst film of the year, but a contender for the worst domestic tragedy, the worst conspiracy thriller, the worst serial killer flick, and the worst courtroom drama. It is that rare movie which, long after you think it’s exhausted the possibilities, keeps discovering new ways to fail.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.