A tragic, if relatively unknown true case is related in lugubrious, subdued fashion by Clint Eastwood. Maybe Changeling is not as poignant and gripping as his Mystic River or Million Dollar Baby, but there is much style and drama that deliberately takes hold as the director again doubles with soft piano and guitar work.
Starring a first-rate Angelina Jolie (looking to be in Joan Crawford mode), Eastwood's new drama is set in 1928 Los Angeles, built around California's "Wineville Chicken Murders" and his attentiveness recalls some of the nuance of his undervalued A Perfect World.
Jolie is ordinary single mother Christine Collins who is neatly tracked on roller skates supervising a lot of female switchboard operators. Her simple life is shattered when nine-year-old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) seemingly vanishes after she comes home late one day. A five-month investigation leads to a boy found in Illinois with the press and authorities arranging a big reunion. But, Christine avers "the LAPD told me and all of you this boy was my son. He is not."
The new boy in her life is steadfast in his claims, as is the insistent police Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), in spite of those close to Walter who note a physical discrepancy. Christine is viewed as delusional and taken to a mental hospital with (some) electroshock treatment. Here, the plot from J. Michael Straczynski branches out from the subdued drama at the outset to all the complications from its socio-political infrastructure. Though, it does streamline the nature of the case, beginning with the fact of not revealing anything about the heroine's spouse.
An earnest John Malkovich is key as a scrupulous radio evangelist, Rev. Gustav Briegleb, who doggedly supports Christine to highlight a breakdown of the LAPD, headed by Chief Davis (Colm Feore). A similar strand to Mystic River that stirs the legal system is a young teenage witness (Eddie Alderson) who admits his involvement with a crazed coercing fellow (a cocky, piercing Jason Butler Harner) in the desert concerning abducted boys.
Ultimately, the city is exposed in a very unfavorable light as designer James J. Murakami provides a expressive contrasts as the old red trolley cars occasionally roam the streets. The confidentiality and conspiratory nature is part of the history as Eastwood looks distinctively into attitudes and moral ambiguity to a world he was welcomed into. The melodrama escalates juxtaposing two major judicial events, including a murder trial, which finally leads to a more palpable conflict.
Life, on a public and private level, is brought to the fore with foreboding thematic resonance. Jolie, for some, may duplicate her performance as Marianne Pearl in A Mighty Heart, her darkened complexion is exasperatingly honest as her stability is frowned upon in society. Besides sharp, disparate subordinating work from Donovan and Feore reflecting the influence of City Hall on the department, Geoff Pierson and Michael Kelly display much presence as a cop and lawyer, respectively. Also, Amy Ryan, so good as a bitter mother in Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone, is effective as one of Christine's fellow inmates.
The elegant craftsman in Eastwood works with his production crew, especially lenser Tom Stern with much luster and agility to evocatively connect with Los Angeles when it was less dense and more dusty. If his treatment of the script doesn't have the energy and drive of something like his Letters of Iwo Jima, the expression of time and place extends to the fashions accentuated by Deborah Hopper (with hats and dresses looking beautifully on Jolie) as Changeling brews up much vivid, unsensationalized malfeasance throughout with an epilogue nicely dovetailing the unexpected and/or unfortunate destinies of some of those involved.