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Changeling

Posted by Cantankerous Panda on March 7, 2009

CHANGELING (2008)

Crucials

Director: Clint Eastwood

Written by: J. Michael Straczynski

Starring: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly, Colm Feore, James Butler Harner

Based on a true story

Recommended? Very light yes.

First, let me clarify my recommendation status. It’s not that I thought it was a bad film, per se, but at two and a half hours, it ran a bit long and the emotional strain became tiring. Once the climax occurs, the film has probably another 15 minutes or so of running time, and it kinda leads to a strange ending because it’s not as satisfying anymore. I guess part of that has to do with the true story, but I do think it could have been a bit shorter. The performances in this film were stellar, though, so I definitely think it’s worth watching to see Angelina Jolie in action. But it’s not a film that I think I’d want to watch again, partially due to the actual story.

The story takes place in the 1920s, when single working-mom Christine Collins (Jolie) comes home to find her son, Walter, missing. After a long search that lasted several months, the LAPD informed her that they found her son in Illinois, I believe, or Iowa (Whatever, like it matters…). When she goes to greet her son, she immediately realizes that the police were mistaken; the boy is not her son. The LAPD, desperate for this happy-ending story to improve their image as they were notoriously corrupt during this time, refused to listen to her and proceeded to try and convince her that young boys change a lot over the course of several months, and that her emotional turmoil since he went missing was clouding her judgment. She was convinced to take the boy home for a “trial run”, essentially, so that she would see that he’s her son. The boy, claiming to be Walter Collins, went along with the whole thing.

From pretty early on in the film, Christine is at odds with the cops. No one is really listening to her, despite observations she made at home which clearly indicated that the boy was not her son (such as his height being three inches off and his penis being circumcised). When she calls the lead on the case, Captain Jones (Donovan), he pretends to believe her only by sending a doctor over to convince her that she’s wrong. As the film progresses, we see Christine’s constant struggle to make the truth known. It’s largely a story about this strong, persistent, admirable woman who refused to shut up in the face of injustice when everyone in a position of authority was trying to force her to do so.

The film definitely sets up the male-dominated society of the 1920s pretty much immediately, when Christine’s boss approaches her about her good work as a manager at the phone company, especially in light of the fact that someone bigwig in the company scoffed at the idea of letting women hold that position. This theme is carried throughout the film, as Christine’s role as a woman, and specifically as a single working mother, is a major factor in all of the cruelty she has to endure from the LAPD and the doctors in the film (other than her trusted family doctors). There are few significant male roles in the film that offer a counter to this view of women, most notably Rev. Gustav Briegleb (Malkovich), who not only believes Christine but also wishes to help her fight against the police. However, his motives are not entirely pure, either. From the start, he addresses how he is on his own crusade to do everything he can to embarrass and shame the LAPD for all of their corruption. At the very least, Malkovich doesn’t question her credibility simply because she is a woman; in fact, he praises her convictions and her composure. Christine is a model example of a true female hero.

I found the film hard to watch because of all the corruption and injustice throughout the film. You don’t want to believe that such cruel and inhumane things could be done to Christine, especially by the police, and you end up wanting to scream and shake people by the shoulders as more and more outrageous things occur. The hardships that Christine endures lasts for the majority of the film, and I felt incredibly tired by the end of that arc. On one hand, that’s most likely intentional, as one can only imagine how exhausted Christine was after all of these events. On the other hand, I felt I was wound so tightly for so long that the release had to also be the conclusion to the film. I know that there were a couple plot points that needed to be addressed after the climax of the film, as this story was about a mother’s fight and search for her lost son, but I didn’t feel like I had the energy to continue with the film. Perhaps if it had been cut down a bit, I would have appreciated the last few scenes. However, after all the different horrible aspects of this story, I didn’t have room to really digest or care for them.

I don’t want to misrepresent the film as being a full two hours worth of watching Angelina Jolie fighting with the cops. There’s another story that intertwines with this one, but I don’t want to spoil it too much for you. It would be unfair to talk about the film without discussing the parallel story that connects with Christine’s, so I will have to talk about it a bit. This true story also has to do with the Wineville Chickencoop Murders. It was an incredibly savage, tragic crime that included the deaths of what they believed to be at least twenty kids. So, while Christine is going through her own personal Hell, mostly the courtesy of the LAPD, there’s an investigation into first a reported border-hopper, and then an accused child murderer. The cop who followed up on that lead, Detective Lester Ybarra (Kelly), is another outstanding male role in the film as he actually decides to do his job instead of blindly listening to his corrupt superior (Captain Jones). So, while the film is mostly focused on Christine’s trials and tribulations, there’s significant time spent on this other investigation.

It was hard for me to focus on this film as a Clint Eastwood film. I wasn’t really spending the time admiring his framing or the mise-en-scène of each scene. I think he captured what I imagined was the look and feel of the 1920s. I haven’t seen most of his more notable films, but from the clips I have seen of them, there’s a certain amount of heaviness–almost overbearing, to me– to his work. I didn’t feel that in this film. It’s not very fair for me to judge his other films due to the small bits I have seen, so I could be very wrong about them. But this just didn’t feel like a typical Eastwood film of recent years. I’m also not saying that’s a good or bad thing, necessarily. I do think that this film’s subject matter was heavy enough that it needed a lighter directorial touch, so I think it worked for the film. I didn’t feel it was too drastically dark and dreary so as to emphasize the dark and painful time in Christine’s life, which was something I feared.

Also, I need to praise the acting in this film a bit more. Jeffrey Donovan was interesting to watch in this role since I mostly know him from the USA show Burn Notice, but I think he did a good job. Not terrific, but good. Michael Kelly, who played Detective Ybarra, was perfect. I had no idea whether or not he had an ounce of sympathy in him for a long time during the film. The way he handled the Wineville situation was just perfect for that role. The child actors were all surprising good, as well. And then, of course, there’s Angelina Jolie. I know some people do not like her, and I will admit that she has made some less-than-great movies. Whether or not you think she’s gorgeous (which I do), you have to admit that she does have talent. During my traditional post-film dip into the IMDB message boards, I found some people bashing Jolie for being “hammy” or “over the top”, statements I find to be laughable, at best. I completely bought into her being Christine Collins, and felt empathy for her as she went through various stages of her emotional struggle. The only part where I felt that remotely dissipate was during the scene that I saw over and over again due to the trailer (“I want MY SON BACK!”);  even then, the rest of the scene was so upsetting and her acting was so strong that I quickly recovered from that small hiccup of believability.

The story of Christine Collins is so unbelievable that it has to be classified as “stranger than fiction”. Changeling is a hard film to swallow because it’s simply so hard to comprehend how all of this could happen. That’s a large part of the reason why I don’t know if I could recommend it. It’s definitely a film you need to be prepared for in terms of emotional energy. I put off watching it for awhile because I knew it would make me cry, which it did, and I knew it would be tiring. I didn’t realize just how frustrating it would be, though. I don’t like to tell people not to watch films just because they might make you uncomfortable or sad; there are definitely certain movies I would describe in those terms that I feel are worth watching. I think that what killed some of the relief of the film, though, were the additional scenes after the climax. And that is enough for me to hold off on a strong recommendation, as the film was hard enough to watch already.

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4 Responses to “Changeling”

  1. Serryl said

    I had heard many good things about this film when it came out as well as a few bad things. I’m glad to see that the complaints about the acting were more a matter of personal taste than absolute truth.

    You mentioned something that’s very interesting to me; the idea of feeling wound up or agitated. It’s a tool that artists of many mediums use. Sometimes it’s used bluntly, like when a musicians inserts dissonant sounds into a piece of music. Other times, which I find more challenging, the artist disrupts our sense of peace in subtler ways.

    Changeling shows unfair actions, presented as fair, being committed in an ostensibly fair system. It’s not only hard to watch because of how unfair it is, but also because there appears to be so little potential for things to be corrected.

    I personally love movies like this, specifically because they agitate me. They remind me that the world is only as fair as we allow it to be and that sometimes we must stand alone without hope of restitution.

    Thanks for the review, I definitely want to see this now.

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      Serryl, I love that you enjoy my reviews so much that they make you want to see the films :).

  2. VerseDev said

    I suppose the biggest recommendation for this film is that you connected with it to the point where it could frustrate and exhaust you. I’m not sure it would be something I’d go out of my way to see but it is an effective communicator.

    Also I hate movies that overshoot their end. You go for a ride of whatever sort and then, before you can just bask or exult or whatever the film prompts, you have to slog through unnecessary tie up scenes.

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      I understand why they had the extra scenes because they were staying true to the story, for the most part, and it really did set it up for the whole “what happened to her after all of this” bit, but I still just didn’t feel up for it after the climax of the film.

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