Thursday, November 6, 2008

Changeling: Factual horror story

Changeling (2008) • View trailer for Changeling
4.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, profanity and profound dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.6.08
Buy DVD: Changeling • Buy Blu-Ray: Changeling [Blu-ray]

A single mother's 9-year-old son disappears; she frantically summons the police for help. Months pass, and finally a miracle: The boy has been found halfway across the country. But when the lad is brought back to California for the anticipated heartwarming reunion, the distraught mother knows immediately that a mistake has been made. This isn't her son.
Led to believe that the Los Angeles police have recovered her missing son,
Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) is chagrined to discover that the boy clasped
by Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) isn't her son ... but her disappointment
turns to incredulous horror when Jones and the rest of his colleagues refuse to
admit their mistake, and insist that she must be wrong.

A tragic but understandable case of mistaken identity, right? The boy will be reprimanded for posing as somebody he isn't, and the police will resume their hunt for the woman's son.

Well ... no.

Not when the setting was 1928 Los Angeles, where the city police department under the rule of Chief James E. "Two Guns" Davis was as violent, corrupt and unrepentent as the Prohibition-era mobsters it had been designed to eradicate. What this meant to Christine Collins, after her son went missing, translated into a Kafka-esque nightmare that only grew worse — much, much worse — as days turned into weeks turned into months.

Director Clint Eastwood's Changeling, meticulously based on actual events by debut feature screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, is at once fascinating and utterly beyond belief: a sequence of events that'd never fly in fiction, because they simply wouldn't pass the credulity test. No system of authority — certainly not in the United States, let alone the progressive state of California, less than 100 years ago — could be so unethical or so wantonly, viciously cruel.

No 20th century American woman could have been subjected to so heinous an ordeal.

No mother could have remained so resolute, in the face of such treatment.

No hero should have fallen into such obscurity, not even a century later.

Frankly, I don't understand why statues dedicated to Christine Collins aren't dotting the Los Angeles landscape, or why feminists haven't done a better job of heralding her (wholly unintentional) contribution to the cause of woman's rights. She deserves to be a teaching point in every contemporary history class.

(In the interest of maximizing your response to this film, you really should stop reading now, and save the rest until after you've seen the picture. I simply can't discuss it without citing relevant details that are best experienced without warning.)

Straczynski, until this point best known as a comic book writer and the creator/primary writer for the cult TV series Babylon Five, has made an impressive jump to the big screen: a sole authorial credit on a script so beautifully constructed — so carefully researched and impeccably plotted — that one senses he's been waiting years to put the project into just the right hands.

Those would be Eastwood's hands, and the director has done Straczynski proud. Continuing an unprecedented streak that has generated four powerful classics — from Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby to Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima — Eastwood has constructed this story with a noticeable absence of directorial flash or needless technique. He steps back, lets the events unfold, and trusts his actors to deliver the gravitas that will do justice to his film.

They oblige.

Which is not to say that Eastwood's capable hand can't be felt in every frame. We see this immediately with cinematographer Tom Stern's establishing shots of the quiet neighborhood where Christine lives with her son, Walter; this is a world of bleached-out color and an oddly oppressive atmosphere. Eastwood's spare, piano-based score emphasizes the mood: Happiness here will be fleeting at best, crushed at worst.

The clothes designed by Deborah Hopper are historically accurate and fashionably tasteful, but they reflect the grim atmosphere. Somehow, the Roaring Twenties have faded to a whimper in this part of the city; something has gone very wrong here, even before Christine's ordeal begins.

Change was essential; it required only a catalyst.

Christine (Angelina Jolie) is a doting and responsible parent: a capable multi-tasker who we can assume represents the multitude of American women just like her, who remained invisible at this point in time when men called all the shots. She drops Walter (Gattlin Griffith) off at school each morning before reporting for duty at the local telephone exchange, where she works as a line supervisor, rollerskating from one section of the massive switchboard to another.

She collects Walter at the end of each day, and they make modest plans involving movies. She dotes on the boy, despite the way — in the manner of all growing adolescents — that he's starting to resist such protective concern.

An employee calls in sick the following day; Christine is tagged to replace her. She resists, having promised to spend the day with Walter; the boy's resigned expression speaks of many such minor disappointments.

Eventually, Christine allows herself to be persuaded; it's the responsible act of a sole bread-winner.

She waves to the boy as she walks down the sidewalk toward the Red Line stop; Stern's camera slowly follows her field of vision. A porch pillar fleetingly obscures the boy, framed in the window, and we have an absurd fear that he'll have vanished when the pillar slides aside and exposes the window again. Relief, then, when — a heartbeat later — we see him still watching his mother depart.

Eastwood, ever the master craftsman, knows precisely how to manipulate our emotions. This film is filled with similarly canny scene compositions, where fleeting images — a phalanx of reporters, a policeman's feral smile, a stray axe or hatchet abandoned in a deserted farm, a wooden staircase in a cavernous room — create, enhance or unexpectedly shatter a given mood.

Watch, as well, at how Eastwood employs close-ups — or chooses not to — during moments of emotional intensity. He also understands and frequently employs Hitchcock's rule of heightened tension, often refusing to zoom in on the character speaking (the reflexive act of a lazy director), but instead focusing on the person listening.

That's where the drama is.

Walter is missing when Christine returns home that day. He's not to be found anywhere; to her disbelief, the police refuse to get involved until 24 hours have passed. At that point, her case lands in the hands of Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan, well known from TV's Burn Notice, and a malignant villain here). He's solicitous but oily; Christine instinctively doesn't trust him, but pragmatically understands that she needs to work with the man.

Such is a woman's lot in Prohibition-era Los Angeles.

Those who dismiss Jolie, who think only in terms of her many sex-kitten roles in high-profile nonsense such as Wanted, Beowulf and her two Lara Croft flicks, do her a disservice. Those of us who remember her early work in Girl, Interrupted — not to mention her searing recent performance in A Mighty Heart — aren't the slightest bit surprised.

She has acting chops just waiting to be exercised, and she conveys a wealth of emotion in a single, fleeting, impressively pregnant glance. Her first encounter with Jones — the range of responses considered, rejected and finally employed, that flutter across Christine's face — is typical of Jolie's skill.

The only time Jolie can't quite sell the scene occurs during the one incident that even Straczynski couldn't make fully believable: the moment, months later, when Christine is introduced to the boy claiming to be her son, who has been sent by train from DeKalb, Ill. It's a circus: Desperately needing some positive publicity, Chief Davis and Jones have orchestrated a huge photo-op. Despite her immediate certainly that this boy is not her son, Christine allows Jones to bully her into a reunion shot that gets splashed across every newspaper in the land ... a photo that will come back to haunt her.

Back in the day, the real Christine Collins consented to just such a shot. Jolie does her best to sell the scene, but even she can't burrow deeply enough into her character's skin, at this moment, to convey what might have been running through her mind.

But no matter.

Common sense asserts itself; Christine begs the police to take the boy back, and resume searching for her son. Rather than giving any credence to this obviously stable mother's wishes, Jones slanders her with an increasingly heartless series of "reasons" for Christine's lack of cooperation. A doctor is summoned, who "proves" that the boy is, indeed, Walter.

We shake our heads in disbelief. Incredulity becomes horror when, unrepentent and turning into a public embarrassment to the police department, Christine is consigned to the county psychopathic ward as a patient, where she's housed against her will on a "Code 12" ruling — a term that referred to a difficult or "inconvenient" person, usually a woman — solely on Jones' say-so.

Fortunately, Christine has two allies: one highly visible, the other working behind the scenes. Community activist Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich, understated and therefore quite memorable), having built a career with a regular religious radio broadcast that is devoted to shining a light on local police corruption, has the experience to offer comfort, advice, a community forum and increasingly powerful friends.

Elsewhere, a detective working a different runaway case in the same department — Lester Ybarra, played with quiet and yet heroic dignity by Michael Kelly — sees a seemingly routine investigation spiral into the stuff of nightmares, as he gradually learns about Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner, utterly chilling), a man eventually revealed to be a serial child predator.

At which point — already exhausted and overwhelmed, as viewers, by Christine's personal ordeal — we discover that the seemingly unconnected threads of this other case are about to link up and compound the existing tragedy. It's a "gotcha" moment every bit as powerful as the galvanic jolt in Million Dollar Baby, when Hilary Swank wakens in the hospital and we realize that this seemingly triumphant "little boxing movie" has morphed into something quite different, and much more tragic.

Eastwood and Straczynski unflinchingly follow the case to its bitter conclusion, which includes several unexpected epilogues. Real life is like that.

The one thing we don't learn, from the closing text crawls that reveal subsequent key details, is that Christine Collins died in 1935 ... apparently mere months after we last see her here, a vestige of comfort and happiness finally emerging on Jolie's face. It is, not coincidentally, a bright sunny day: one that reveals a sparkle of radiant color unseen to this point.

I dunno where you found this late-career creative muse, Clint, but please keep her happy. We all benefit from the results.

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