Changeling, the latest directorial effort by Clint Eastwood, is the story of a young mother rocked by the sudden disappearance of her nine-year old son. Beginning with the desperate search for the missing boy, what soon evolves is a tale of intimidation and police corruption at the highest levels, and how both these elements are linked to the unmasking of the serial murders of several local boys. All the elements are in place for a sensational potboiler, and could only be the work of fiction—but staggeringly, Changeling, in its entirety, is an account of the true events.
It is Los Angeles, 1928. Christine Collins (played with careful, subdued energy by Angelina Jolie), a single mother with an ascending career at the telephone company, comes home to find her young son, Walter, has gone missing. She is devastated, left with no clues, and after a few months police inform her they’ve finally found him in tow with a drifter in Dekalb, Illinois. When the boy is brought to Los Angeles, Christine’s reunion collapses with nightmarish, gothic results: The boy who claims to be Walter is not her son, she knows it plain as day, but is coerced by the LAPD that he could be none other than Walter, and desperate for positive press they send the boy home with her and report that mother and son have been happily reunited. Christine is rigored into shock, and doubly upsetting is the comfort with which this young impostor has settled into his newly-anointed life as Walter Collins.
The screenplay has an intriguing interlocking structure; the impetus of the movie settles on Christine’s search for Walter (despite the refusal of the LAPD to engage in a case they’ve jiggered to be closed), with a midsection detailing how the LAPD chose to dispose of Christine as she took her story to the press—by charging her with hysteria and locking her in the county’s psych ward. These elements, in turn, open onto the larger mystery of a string of disappearances of young boys, leading to uncover what would soon be coined the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, of which Walter Collins was a victim.
I’m frankly fascinated that this film wasn’t made sooner; the inherent sensationalism of such a story (serial murders, police corruption, false imprisonment) seems like an elaborate ready-made thriller. Eastwood has a careful eye for the newly-burgeoning Los Angeles of the early 20th century (evidenced by an opening flyover shot of the tree-lined suburbs and contrasted by an analogous closing shot of the bustling city proper); the film is wonderfully consistent in its setting and demonstrates a dazzling command of 1920s/1930s period detail. Jolie’s performance is admirable; her mega-stardom (thankfully) does not corrode her character, and she crafts Christine Collins without the abject ferocity one would typically expect of an “Angelina Jolie” performance. Christine is a polite and soft-spoken woman, but also uniquely progressive and determined. To watch her hold her own while being unjustly thrown into the loony bin is a testament to the triumph of will within her, and this film is a respectful biopic for the woman Christine Collins was.