Dir: Clint Eastwood, 2008. Starring: Angelina Jolie, Jeffrey Donovan, John Malkovich. Mystery/Thriller.

I think motherhood has been good for Angelina Jolie. Before she started adopting orphans and having kids of her own she was best known as an Oscar-winning knife enthusiast who made out with her brother on television. Well, whatever else that sexy little home wrecker does with her time I now know that she’s also a first class actress who really taps into a primal maternal connection to the sad, sad story at the heart of The Changeling. Fans of true crime and L.A. history should find a lot to get excited about here. It’s a haunting story centered around Jolie’s incredible performance as a mother of a missing child who deals with some extraordinarily weird circumstances above and beyond her heartbreaking loss, and takes on a corrupt L.A.P.D. in the process.

Our story starts in 1928 in a lovingly evoked Los Angeles of a bygone era complete with street cars, rain swept downtown boulevards teeming with pedestrians, and roller skating telephone operators. Jolie, looking like an art deco maven chiseled out of a painting, plays Christine Collins—a single mother raising her nine-year-old son Walter in a middle class neighborhood of L.A. She comes home from work one day to find her house completely empty. At first bewildered she calls the police to report Walter missing and is told that they won’t bother sending any officers over because it’s just not a priority and that furthermore he’s probably just outside and will turn up soon. Days, weeks, and months go by and Walter still has not turned up. Collins finds the L.A.P.D.’s response to her crisis to be incompetent at best and hostile at worst.

Finally, after several months the L.A.P.D.’s head of their Juvenile Division tells Christine that they have found Walter and arranges for them to be publicly reunited. It seems as if the L.A.P.D. has always been under fire for being corrupt and untrustworthy. 1928 was no exception. Under fire for constant stories in the media about departmental corruption, their hope was that delivering the child who claimed to be Christine’s son in front of the media would help tone down the ongoing criticism of the department. But when Christine arrives hoping to find Walter, she finds an imposter.

Here’s where the story gets supremely bizarre. Christine tells Captain J.J. Jones—played by Jeffrey Donovan with an Irish brogue and arrogant disdain for any and all people who get in his way—that the boy who says he is Walter is not, in fact, her son and Jones tells her to take the kid home anyway and see if she reconsiders. Stupefied by all of this Collins agrees and takes the boy home. He calls her “mommy” until she can’t take it anymore. She begs him to stop lying and tell her the truth but he just flashes his adorable 'lil con artist smile and insists that he’s Walter. But the evidence that the kid is not Walter, beyond Christine’s natural intuition, mounts and it plagues her. Walter is taller than the imposter Walter for one—Christine has his height marked on the wall in her kitchen. And while imposter Walter is circumcised the real Walter is not. Christine also goes to Walter’s dentist to retrieve his dental records and the dentist says categorically that they are not the same boy. Christine goes to Captain Jones with her findings and he still insists that, among other things, it’s possible the boy’s spine could have shortened while he was not in her custody. Seriously!

They treat her as an irritant, plant stories about her in the newspaper alleging that she’s an unfit mother, and continue to give her the runaround until a local Episcopalian minister with a radio show takes an interest in Collins’ story and decides to rally the faithful to her cause. John Malkovich isn’t given a ton to do with his role as the passionately anti-L.A.P.D. minister who rails against the vice and corruption associated with the department. But due to his efforts on her behalf the L.A.P.D. has another scandal on its hands. Their method of handling the situation is to lock up Christine Collins in a mental institution against her will where she meets other sane exiles from society, all of them women, sent there because of their potential to embarrass the department for one reason or another. The hospital itself is a horror show with ugly nurses and electro shock therapy meted out as punishment. The doctors insist, after telling her she’s delusional, that Collins can go if only she will sign a statement saying that she was mistaken about Walter, but she refuses.

The story goes from creepy to gruesome when the Juvenile authorities pick up a 15-year-old kid who confesses to having assisted in the countless murders of little boys, including one he believes to be Walter Collins, who were kidnapped from their L.A. neighborhoods and brought back to a ranch in Riverside County where they were hacked to death. The story of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders is one of the most notorious events in California history. The authorities eventually find and arrest the 15-year-old’s uncle, Gordon Northcott (played with unhinged menace by Jason Butler Harner), the mastermind behind the murders. After Walter’s imposter finally confesses to not being Walter and just wanting to go to Hollywood to meet his favorite cowboy star, the L.A.P.D. finally realizes demonzing Christine Collins and covering up their mistakes won’t work.

The rest of the film simultaneously traces Collins’s efforts to take on the L.A.P.D. for what they did to her and countless women they wanted to silence by placing them in a mental institution and the trial to convict Gordon Northcott for the murders of approximately 20 boys. He confesses to killing Walter and then retracts it when Christine confronts him while he awaits execution. She never gets a straight answer about what happened to him and no remains are ever found. Even though she knows he’s probably gone she holds out hope that one day she’ll find him. We find out from a boy who managed to escape that it was thanks to Walter’s efforts on his behalf that he got away.

It’s astonishing to think that most of what happens in this film is true. The screenwriter of the film, J. Michael Straczynski, actually included newspaper excerpts into the screenplay to remind the reader that he wasn’t making anything up aside from condensing a few characters. How could all this have happened? Without oversight, the L.A.P.D. was allowed to be as corrupt and malicious as they cared to be. It was only through the actions of people like Christine Collins that anything was ever done about it.

I’ve heard people complain about Jolie’s constant mantra in the film of “I just want my son back. I want my son.” (She says that a lot.) Supposedly it has even inspired a drinking game based on the number of times she says that in the film. But I think the simplicity of the line and its repeated use by her throughout is entirely honest, real, and affecting. What else could a mother caught up in the insanity that Christine Collins found herself in say? Director Clint Eastwood is obviously inspired by the story of Collins as a populist hero and he has directed a fitting tribute to her and a vivid portrait of the chilling events of 1928 in Los Angeles. The emotional impact of the film is all due to Jolie’s incredible performance. She has never seemed particularly girlish, even when she was younger she was always vamping, but in this role she channels a newfound maturity. Her performance is more emotional and reflective than in past films but always strong. This is an underrated film from last year that everyone should see.


The Changeling was nominated for 3 Oscars:  Best Actress (Angelina Jolie), Best Art Direction, and Best Cinematography.

Posted by:
Jed Leland
May 7, 2009 4:42pm
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