Clint Eastwood has directed so many high-toned, award-scarfing prestige movies over the past few years that people have largely forgotten about the schlock he used to churn out, even after Unforgiven cemented forever his reputation as a serious auteur. For every Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby or Letters From Iwo Jima, there’s also been an Absolute Power, True Crime or Blood Work—disposable cinematic potboilers. Changeling, Eastwood’s latest effort (at least until Gran Torino opens in December), looks at first glance as though it must surely belong to the Oscar-bait category, having premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival; Universal’s ad campaign works overtime to sell it as this year’s equivalent of something like Atonement, a sophisticated period melodrama. But prepare not to be edified. For all its highbrow trappings, Changeling is in fact the most compulsively watchable piece of trash Eastwood has ever made.
Much of its breathless allure, I should note, stems from one’s mounting incredulous horror at the knowledge (revealed in an opening title) that these insane events actually happened. On March 10, 1928, a single LA mother named Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) returned home from work to discover that her nine-year-old son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), had vanished. Five months later, the LAPD triumphantly announced that the boy had been found, in the company of an Illinois drifter—and were none too happy when Collins spoiled the highly publicized trainside reunion by announcing that they’d presented her with someone else’s kid. Indeed, so intent was Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) on closing the case that when Collins persisted in her denial, he declared her mentally unsound and locked her up in a psychiatric ward, despite the efforts of a crusading reverend (John Malkovich) on her behalf. Meanwhile, an intrepid detective (Michael Kelly), working an unrelated case, made a startling discovery ...
That brief synopsis only scratches the surface of what was known, in its day, as the Wineville Chicken Coop case—a saga so absurdly sensational that you can only wonder how on Earth it ever fell into obscurity in the first place, and so notorious at the time that Wineville hastily changed its name to Mira Loma in an effort to escape negative associations. Rediscovered and fashioned into a somewhat ungainly script by Babylon 5 scribe J. Michael Straczynski, the tale plays, in Eastwood’s so-called “classical” style (which really amounts to a sort of measured impatience), like lurid dime-store pulp disguised as a case study of institutional corruption. It doesn’t help that Jolie, a defiantly modern actress, seems to be in constant battle with the period setting; her solution is to turn up the volume yet another notch in each successive scene. And pity poor Amy Ryan, so indelible in Gone Baby Gone, who’s saddled here with the tired role of a good-hearted, wisecracking hooker and saddled with reams of didactic exposition.
And yet I must confess that I was riveted from start to finish—not by the film’s artistry, which is negligible, but by its sheer ... well, f--ked-up-ness is the only “word” that springs to mind. Changeling aspires to be a muckraking proto-feminist weepie, demonstrating how women of the flapper era were dismissed as hysterics whenever they dared to challenge the male power structure, but its true fascination lies in countless details too damn weird for any screenwriter to have invented. Because the two Walters are played by different actors, there’s no Return of Martin Guerre-style mystery here, but the revelation of the impostor’s motive is a jaw-dropper; likewise various aspects of the parallel investigation, which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling via even the vaguest allusion. And while the film has plenty of cornball Hollywood moments, it also repeatedly thwarts audience expectations—if only by virtue of sticking to the facts of the Wineville case, which was by no means resolved in a cathartic or crowd-pleasing fashion. Think of it as an ideal transition between the summer blockbuster and the quality fall slate.