Starring Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Rated R

Though we like to kid ourselves into thinking no time is as depraved as the present, a simple walk through history provides ample evidence that scandal and homicide have long been part of the American fabric.

The City of Angels alone has brought us the Black Dahlia murder, the Fatty Arbuckle rape trial, suicides, and sex scandals galore. And now, a freshly excavated trauma, the case of Christine Collins in Clint Eastwood’s Changeling, a true crime tale set in Los Angeles in 1928.

Christine (Angelina Jolie) is a flinty single mother who works as a telephone switchboard supervisor and takes responsibility for nine-year-old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith), whose deadbeat father abandoned him at birth.

She is, in other words, a type: a noble, suffering, hard-working Madonna from the Gish sisters school who’s about to have her trial by fire.

That trial is too bizarre to be anything but true and centers on the disappearance of Walter when Christine is kept late at work. After months of waiting, the scandal-plagued Los Angeles Police Department tries for a not especially well-thought-out PR gambit: They hand Christine a boy roughly her son’s age and claim they’ve reunited mother and child.

But Christine will have none of the switcheroo.

And from there, Changeling‘s descent begins. As the film meanders off course, Changeling touches down first in Girl, Interrupted territory. Anxious to be rid of the whistle-blowing Christine, police captain J.J. Jones (a blandly malevolent Jeffrey Donovan) has her committed. Eastwood stops at nothing to milk every effect and his overwrought techniques are wearying.

D.W. Griffith’s hysterical crosscutting in The Birth of a Nation has nothing on Christine, about to undergo electric shock. As the dead-behind-the-eyes Nurse Ratcheds prepare to fry her brain, Eastwood crosscuts to her rescuer, radio evangelist Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) storming the mental hospital in the nick of time.

Few genres are left untouched, as Eastwood dips into horror and the sordid fixation on sex crimes and gore of the CSI franchise or the comparably grubby and gratuitous Gone Baby Gone. In moments that test the limits of good taste, Eastwood can’t simply tell us that children suffer, but also sensationalizes that suffering. And yet, for all the mounting injustices, corruption, and blood, Changeling is a remarkably lifeless and purposeless affair.

Steeped in a contemporary true crime sensibility, Changeling is also painfully tone-deaf to the manner and language of the time. Part of the pleasure of a period drama like AMC’s Mad Men has been how well it captures the slowed-down, minimalist dialogue and restraint of another era. But Changeling‘s characters speak like familiar residents of the 21st century.

Eastwood may be aiming for a more restrained and dignified sort of period drama with Changeling, but here he’s all surface, preferring the familiar scheme of evil and good, crime and punishment, over delving deeply into character or meaning. His mission is helped along with the hackneyed ministrations of screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, a TV veteran (Murder, She Wrote, Babylon 5) with a comparable taste for moral extremes and intelligence-insulting simplification.

In Changeling, Eastwood and Straczynski struggle to rub the noses of the creeps in their sins and hang wings on the martyrs.

But when you make saints of people, you also sacrifice humanity. Very little of Christine’s emotional arc rings true: Lesser characters crumple and fall apart, but she allows perfect actorly tears to roll down her cheeks and dramatically holds a gloved hand to her lips in trying times.

Angelina Jolie has performed comparably before, as the equally regal and traumatized wife of Daniel Pearl in A Mighty Heart, but while she impersonates trauma she never convincingly occupies it.

Her performance is dignified but surprisingly empty, roughly equivalent to the inertia of Changeling itself. Once the courtroom drama rolls around, she listens impassively to horrible tales of corruption and murder, but smiles an action hero smile when the bad guys go down.

The sight of Jolie in perfectly rouged lips roughing up a child killer suggests a tattooed Jolie dying to bust out of her period garb.


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