The title of Clint Eastwood's new movie has a vague horror-flick vibe to it, and Changeling is, in large part, a horror film - a fact-based story built around the notorious Wineville Chicken Coop Murders in late-1920s California.
But the great darkness and evil at the heart of J. Michael Straczynski's script are not intended to make you jump in your seat and laugh nervously in the dark. The horror in Changeling is much deeper and unsettling, because its face is banally human and its toll unspeakably tragic.
Angelina Jolie stars as Christine Collins, a working-class single mother who, on April 10, 1928, kissed her 9-year-old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) goodbye and left for her job at the Pacific Telegraph Co. When she got home Walter was nowhere to be found. A phone call to the police resulted in the usual response: "You must wait 24 hours before filing a missing-persons report.''
24 hours later, Walter still wasn't home - and he remained missing for almost five months, until the police inform Christine they have found her son alive and well in Dekalb, Ill. But when the train transporting the boy pulls into the station, where his mother and hordes of press await, Christine is dismayed to discover that the boy is not Walter.
And no one believes her.
Even in his best films as a director (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, Letters From Iwo Jima), Eastwood has never been one for subtlety: He's an artist who believes emotions should be writ large and plain, and what happens to Christine from that point forward sometimes feels a bit overdone, as if Eastwood were overplaying his hand while putting the audience through the proverbial wringer.
It's only when you see the ultimate intent of Eastwood's goal in Changeling -which uses a mother's search for her missing son to present a city-wide portrait of corruption, scandal and the abuse of power - that you understand why the film is played at such a high emotional key.
Every detail of the movie's 1920s production design is impeccable, from the
bowler cloche hats that cast a perpetual shadow over Jolie's eyes to the hustle and bustle of the operator switchboards at her place of employment.
The period setting - arguably one of the most convincing ever put on film - is essential to Changeling's exploration of a power structure steamrolling individual rights, and even ruining lives, for the sake of salvaging its public image. This story could never happen in quite this way in the present day. But by exploring the past, Eastwood illuminates the ways and hows of contemporary corruption and abuse.
Changeling is also an engrossing and harrowing police procedural, following the work of a detective (superbly played Michael Kelly) who practically stumbles upon a shocking lead that could potentially help Christine find her real son. The plot's details are best kept vague, since Eastwood has a lot of narrative ground to cover (the movie's two hour and 20 minute running time is not an indulgence), and he relies on the audience's lack of familiarity with the case to create suspense.
There are some breathtakingly dark moments in Changeling, as well as some hauntingly eerie and unsettling ones (including a rendition of Silent Night that simultaneously breaks your heart and makes your skin crawl). If the movie eventually has to resort to caricature and shorthand to resolve the multitude of storylines it sets forth, such tricks take nothing away from Jolie's moving portrayal of a mother's panicked grief and refusal to relinquish hope, even when all signs indicate the worst.
Changeling has an epic sweep but an intimate, personal feel. If the movie lacks the knockout power of, say, Million Dollar Baby, it proves that Eastwood continues to seek out stories that take him places he hasn't been before - and the audience along with him.