“Changeling” is a beautiful piece of filmmaking, maybe a little too beautiful. There’s not a hair out of place. As always, Clint Eastwood’s touch is understated and economical, intelligent. But the film is too easy. Its moral world is starkly black and white. What’s lacking in “Changeling” is a willingness to take chances, to probe the characters’ motivations and risk seeing them as conflicted and imperfect — a willingness, in other words, to really get down and dirty and possibly tarnish the glossy finish.
The film, which takes place in late-1920s/early-30s Los Angeles, is shot in a dramatic neo-noir mode reminiscent of “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential.” Angelina Jolie plays Christine Collins, a single mom working as a telephone operator whose nine-year-old son Walter disappears. After a few ineffectual months, the LAPD, mired in corruption and despised by the public, triumphantly returns to Christine another boy claiming to be Walter as a public relations ploy to clean up its image. When Christine refuses to comply, the police captain in charge of the case, J. J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), attempts to gaslight her into thinking that her son has changed, that she’s lost her sanity. When she goes to the press, Jones has her thrown into a horrific mental ward where all of the LAPD’s female undesirables are sent, and threatens her with shock treatment. To Christine’s rescue comes Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), a Presbyterian minister on a crusade against the police department.
The story is intriguing; if only the script gave the characters any life! The camera does a lot of staring at Jolie’s face, trying to find meaning in its ruby red lipstick and dark eyeliner, its bobbed hair framed by a cloche hat. But something about the luxuriant lips, the twenty-first century cheekbones, the sexy-vicious glint in the eye, doesn’t seem quite right. Jolie turns out to be a competent actress, and in this part she balances nicely her twin cultural roles of superhero and super-mom. She is convincingly grief-stricken, and her period acting is understated. But she doesn’t have much to work with. Nor does Eastwood make much use of Malkovich, whose murderous fop was so alluring in “Burn After Reading.” Here Malkovich is cold and single-minded, utterly impersonal. His by-now predictable verbal mannerisms come off as a failed attempt to spice up a lifeless role. Hints are dropped, but never developed, that Briegleb has his own axe to grind with the police department and is using Christine’s case opportunistically. That would’ve provided a good avenue for Malkovich’s perversity.
What’s off-putting about “Changeling” is how morally self-satisfied it is. The film, with Christine and Briegleb, is happily situated on the side of the good; the police captain and a particularly malevolent psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Steel (Denis O’Hare) are the bad guys. You end up not feeling very much for these characters. The film ultimately comes down to the reductive trope of one woman against the unjust male world. This makes for a nice piece of feminism, but a pretty mediocre film.