Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Movie Review: "Changeling"

Starring Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly, Colm Feore, Amy Ryan
Directed by Clint Eastwood

Official Web site

Having helmed a handful of standout American films over the past couple of decades (“Unforgiven,” “Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby”), Clint Eastwood has left an indelible mark on the movie industry at an age when most directors have long since retired. At the least, most are long past their prime and are hardly prolific anymore. “Changeling,” one of two films Eastwood directed in 2008, doesn’t quite fall into the category that the above mentioned Oscar-winners do. Still, it is confidently directed, with solid acting and generally avoids sentimentality and manipulation.

Led by an emotionally dense performance by Angelina Jolie (who received an Oscar nomination for it), the film has elements of an old-fashioned thriller at its core. However, it never really seeks to build momentum followed by the big payoff that most thrillers do, which usually consists of revealing the identity of the villain. In this instance, it doesn’t have to. The components of the true story, which takes place in Los Angeles, are compelling enough without too much embellishment.

Jolie stars as Christine Collins, a single mother raising her 9-year-old son comes home from her job at the telephone company one day to find him missing. She searches frantically for him, eventually turning to the police for help. The police investigation is led by Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), who after five months of searching, shows up at Christine’s workplace one day to announce he’s found her son. Upon being brought to a train station to reunite with him, Christine immediately realizes the young boy is not her son. However, in a state of confusion and at the insistence of Jones, who has used the occasion to garner some positive press for the department, she agrees to take the boy home with her.

But in the days to come, she realizes her first instincts were correct, as the boy is three inches shorter than her son, and has been circumcised. Jones attempts to explain away the obvious differences with varied excuses that do little to placate Christine, while the boy continues to extend the ruse, only adding to the stressful situation.

Determined to build a case proving the police have not found her son, Christine crosses paths with Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), a local preacher and radio talk show host, who is a vocal critic of the violent and corrupt police force. He immediately believes Christine is right, but warns her of the risks involved in going against the police department.

Where the plot goes from there is best left unsaid, but the story certainly paints an unseemly portrait of the hierarchy of the L.A. police force in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Donovan is quite good as the bullheaded captain, who refuses to admit the department’s mistake, and seeks to simply make the problem go away rather than do his job.

The film does a very good job of building up the components of the case and the aftermath of the fake son’s reveal, yet later court scenes involving Christine’s case against the police are largely, and surprisingly, devoid of much of an emotional payoff. A subplot involving Gordon Northcott, a strange motorist (Jason Butler Harner, practically oozing creepiness in his performance) and a criminal case being built against him becomes more of a focal point in the movie’s third act. This also introduces some sordid details to the story, which makes it a bit tougher to watch at times. Still, a number of the scenes involving Northcott are pretty compelling, thanks in large part to Harner’s performance and Eastwood’s straightforward visual style.

“Changeling” doesn’t quite pack the emotional punch it probably should, based on the material it involves, yet still shows a filmmaker near the top of his game. As Eastwood is set to turn 79 years old later this year, we should all be so fortunate to have something similar said about us.

Grade: B+
(Rated R for some violent and disturbing content, and language.)

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