Clint Eastwood’s Changeling, with its impeccable, Oscar-worthy period detail, art direction, costuming and production design, seems to largely exist as an homage to the films of the time in which it is approximately set. Its narrative commencing in 1928, the film concluding in 1935, it is as though Eastwood and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski painstakingly developed a film that, in its almost quaint recreation of the tropes, dynamics and almost elementary superficial ingredients, seeks to soak in the touchstones upon which many a picture at that time period were based. Those pictures, both celebrated and derided as “women's pictures,” and, until the mid-1930s, they were astonishingly free of regulation, like all Hollywood films. No film at the time of its release could have been called “pre-code,” because firstly the films that were released before 1930 arrived at a time before the Hays Production Code was instituted; “pre-code,” post-1930, is ironically a false label, as the Hays Production Code was adopted by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association on March 31, 1930. However, the code would not be enforced until 1934, bringing an end to the liberalness that characterized the content of an entire host of films that delved into the licentious and lewd. Changeling, however, has more changeless qualities, in a single sense, that being its focus is more on the melodramatic telling of a woman's story, making this emphatically a “women's picture” melodrama that at various dates in Hollywood's treatments of same could have starred Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, even Marlene Dietrich (lastingly and iconically in the “pre-code” era for these aforementioned ladies, but later for all as well), Susan Hayward, Faye Dunaway and Meryl Streep.
Changeling delivers all of the paraphernalia necessary to evoke images of Crawford or Stanwyck being persecuted, punished, scorned, threatened, bullied and held back. Dealing with a system of men unwilling to remotely accommodate their innermost desires, rooted in palpably drawn conceptual scenarios, these heroines were routinely relegated to draconian reformatories (here the psychopathic ward of Los Angeles) after tangling, unsuccessfully, with the all-powerful authorities. The “pre-code” emphasis, however, is lessened by Angelina Jolie's Christine Collins being painted as a saintly figure by Eastwood. Unlike the psychologically rich, verbally confrontational and societally marginal protagonists like Stanwyck's Kitty Lane in Shopworn, however, Collins is actually bordering on being introverted, her fate as a single parent after the abandonment of her son's father resignedly accepted, if not ever forgiven, her dapperly presentable countenance, highlighted only by mascara and optically gleaming, contrastingly colorful scarlet lipstick—almost bedecking against the grimly dismal chiaroscuro and noirish palette Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern untiringly engender—makes her both more vehemently moralistic and consequently less interesting than the “pre-code” ladies, and, defined as she is by the circumstances of the narrative, more reactively etched than comprehensively forged. This, a Ron Howard-touched (he is a producer), somewhat blandly unfolded tale, is more Stella Dallas meets Silkwood and Erin Brokovich, a film about a beleaguered muted force of femininity that is designed to inspire the audience. Unlike other films about a missing loved one today, Changeling does not opt to be a thriller, but a “based on true events” saga, painted with no distractions, so much as an almost ambling cinematic documentation.
The appeal of the content to the director is apparent. With a score by Eastwood himself, of repetitious but mellifluous quality, he repeats the melancholic and nostalgic melody so haunting and memorable in Unforgiven. Like A Perfect World and Mystic River, Eastwood's latest attempts to reconnoiter the horrors of child abduction (echoing both pictures with the emphasis of a boy entering an automobile with strangers), and, connecting this film to the 2003 Boston-set crime drama, wrestling with the yearning for rectitude in the face of such pulverizing despair and violation. (In one interview at the time of the Sean Penn-starrer's release, Eastwood opined that of all crimes, the abduction, molestation and perhaps murder of a child is most deserving of the penalty of death.) In this doubtless worthy objective, however, Changeling manages to veer off course, leaving Collins alone for intermittent stretches of the film's runtime, and, in some ways becoming a different movie from the one early scenes of relative domestic tranquility, intruded upon by the demands of Collins' vocation, as a forthright police officer (Michael Kelly, so riveting as a serial killer in TV's The Shield, responsible for murdering over twenty people in that series and burying many of them, here a stand-out among the cast members as the cop who discovers a shallow grave of a similar number of murdered children) investigates a serial killer's many killings, all poured into one piece of land.
The patina of the film is informed to a great degree by the drawing of the characters. Eastwood allows Collins' enemies to play absolute, unremitting foils, with the heinously corrupt police captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) almost moustache-twirling in his badness, followed by the sinister doctor at the psychopathic award, as frequently redoubtable light-and-shadow patterns noirishly cascading against his smarmy, pensively flagitious face. After Collins is given a changeling by the Los Angeles Police Department, she is made to look like a fool or an insane woman. At the psychopathic ward she is victimized by the head doctor and remorselessly cruel nurses. Set at a time of supposed “Progressive enlightenment,” an era in which a Supreme Court case in the spring of 1927 Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declaring in his decision in favor of state-ordered operations of salpingectomy in Buck v. Bell, “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.” Nascent in the time of the Enlightenment, perversely culminating in the twentieth century, reliance on and fervent belief in the cold hand of the experts, and social engineers among the elites, aided and allowed horrors as depicted in Changeling.
John Malkovich gives his Reverend Gustav Briegleb a sotto voce, sensitive demeanor, soft-spoken and tender in his firm and unbending criticisms of the corrupt and incompetent Los Angeles Police Department. It is not a showy performance, but it is especially welcome, as it stands as a bulwark of moderation and force of understated intensity against the almost ceaselessly upset Jolie. She is a gifted actress, and is beautiful, but pondering the picture, it is difficult to remember a scene in which Jolie's Collins does not cry. In the early, prologue scenes leading to the disappearance of her son, which seem rather superfluous in their length (with some necessary ones, such as one in which the mother measures her son's height, which will become a major plot point, and Collins remarking to her son that the stated policy of the Collins household is to never start fights, simply to finish them—which has resonance throughout the film, though is sadly vocalized again at a time most unnecessary) as they do little to construct the person whom the audience is instructed to follow, Collins, besides making the simple point that mothers love their children.
Numerous visual cues are almost inelegant in their obviousness and manipulation against the mainly classy proprioceptors of the film's formal makeup, methodical pacing and straightforward framing on Eastwood's part, such as a moment meant to convey suspense, as Collins, like a whore with a heart of gold (Amy Ryan), beaten by a cop client wanting to hush her up, who plays the part perhaps Stanwyck could fill in another film about another woman, the wisecracking, truth-telling brazen hussy, is nearly given shock-treatment, with only a second to spare, before Reverend Briegleb arrives to her rescue, a moment that leaves the olfactory sensation of a cheap parlor trick. A long shard of cigarette ash falling to the ground as a pivotal revelation is bestowed to the audience; flashes of random corrupt and vicious ruffian “Gunman Squad” policemen conducting illicit business as Malkovich's Reverend Briegleb pulls the curtain in order to let Collins see the truth of the police department sworn to protect and serve, making the scene play, again, like a television movie, or in any event a movie significantly different in tone from the one commenced.
Eastwood, however, is to be given credit for knowing what kind of film he is, in his own way, honoring, as he lets his picture begin with the old, classic black and white Universal logo, finally concluding the picture as same. And that is most fitting, decorously and thematically. The film may become lost, it may, almost incongruously, both overreach and dither, often simultaneously, but its beginning and ending recall some of the zestfulness lurking beneath the celluloid of classic potboiler melodrama. This most certainly is a melodrama, and like countless melodramas of the 1930s, it finds itself in a courtroom—indeed, two courtrooms—before definitively closing its story. And at that courtroom the villainous police captain, Jones, as played by Donovan and directed by Eastwood, behaves like a vastly different captain in a vastly different setting, Lieutenant Commander Queeg, dementedly ranting, his bellicosity billowing and bubbling as he furiously defends his actions after the fact. All he needs are steel balls to spin in his palms as he confronts the lawyer pitted against him, S.S. Hahn (a scene-stealing, gravitas-conveying Geoff Pierson). And while Changeling has many an error in judgment to criticize, there is one moment of sheer poetry for which one should thank Eastwood. And it is made all the more delightfully rich due to its apparent quaintness. Collins, upon leaving the psychotic ward, marches down the street, the air wafting through her newly free nose and mouth, she likewise inhales a piece of horrifying news from a newspaper boy, an occurrence of limitless recurrence in the films of this time period. A beat. She is in disbelief. She faints, and, her frame consuming the entirety of the frame, begins to fall, almost surely doomed to land on the hard unforgiving street. And, as the viewer is completely certain of what will next transpire, out of nowhere, from outside camera range, behind the lady, a figure, blocked from the audience's view, catches her. It is a vivid, exceedingly fecund moment of simple, startling beauty, wordlessly communicating the altruistic strain of life, and the singularly comforting portrait of the compassionate, charitable individual standing alongside the sufferer of dire straits and ostensibly insurmountable odds.