Angelina Jolie and Jeffrey Donovan, in

Dir. Clint Eastwood
(R) ★ ★ ★

Changeling is a familiar sort of film, a surprise given how much depth director Clint Eastwood has recently plumbed in well established genres like the sports movie (Million Dollar Baby) and the war epic (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima). Here he has made the crusader movie, in which a single person is pitted against a corrupt monolith and wouldn’t you guess brings about change to the social order. Because he is Clint Eastwood, it is no surprise that this is a good film, though we are perhaps spoiled by his recent glut of Oscar-winners; Changeling is merely a good film, not a great one, though only for the highest order of filmmakers is that a complaint.

Angelina Jolie plays the crusader, Christine Collins, a supervisor at a telephone switchboard whose nine-year-old son Walter disappears from their Los Angeles home. It is 1928, and we learn that the LAPD is awash in allegations of corruption and abuse. Led by Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), they return a boy to Christine and claim he is her son, but he is not. Jones is no fool, but he hopes that she is; when she discovers that the boy who was returned to her is circumcised, unlike her son, Jones suggests that the boy’s kidnapper had the procedure done and the boy blocked the memory. Jones doesn’t care who the boy is; the reunion between mother and son was an invaluable photo op for a department beleaguered by bad press.

When Christine complains — to the press, the last straw for Jones — he has her involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital. This is similar to another recent crusader movie, HBO’s Iron Jawed Angels, like this film based a true story. In it, suffragist Alice Paul is abused in a mental hospital for making noise about women’s rights during World War I. The early 20th Century was a perilous time to be a woman in America.

The film casts a wide net, perhaps a little too wide. The film runs 140 minutes and the narrative gets a bit tangled. There are awkward montages of court testimony and cross-cutting between the verdicts in parallel trials. But the Eastwood hallmarks are there: the evocative, de-saturated photography, by frequent collaborator Tom Stern, which in this film is especially effective in how it shrouds the police characters’ faces half in darkness, and the score by Eastwood himself, plaintive and subtle, heavy on piano. Eastwood also makes good use of flashbacks, which flow naturally with the story instead of jutting into it.

The film is further elevated by its performances. Jolie can be fiercely self-possessed, but also vulnerable and brittle, a dichotomy that has distinguished some of her best performances, including Girl, Interrupted and A Mighty Heart. It serves her well as Christine, whose most impactful scenes aren’t the defiant outbursts but the quieter moments where she is on the edge of panic or despair. One such scene takes place in the psychiatric facility with Denis O’Hare as an unsympathetic doctor; Christine figures out quickly that any answer she gives will be used against her.

John Malkovich plays Rev. Gustav Briegleb, a character who turns up nothing but this film in Google and Wikipedia searches of his name. I suspect the character was invented for the film, or composited, because his primary function is to advocate for Christine and move the plot along. His sermons are broadcast on the radio, and he can frequently be heard blasting the corrupt police department and giving exposition.

A pivotal performance is given by Jason Butler Harner, who plays the suspect in a case closely related to the disappearance of Christine’s son. Though he could have benefitted from greater control or firmer direction from Eastwood, his performance of erratic sociopathy is frequently arresting and elicits sympathy at surprising moments. I wondered if the characterization might have been more consistent if Harner had underplayed the role, like Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, though I suppose sociopaths are like snowflakes: no two the same.

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