While plumbing the true-life mystery of a missing boy in ’20s-era LA, director Clint Eastwood’s Changeling brings another curious fact to the surface. Somehow, the man who once wrapped his fist around a .44 Magnum and snarled, “Go ahead, make my day,” has matured into the Enya of filmmaking. That Eastwood doesn’t even yell “action” when filming (he merely looks at the actors expectantly until they catch on) is telling in his latest film — what little action there might be is quickly diffused by muted lighting, cool-toned sets, barely there whispers of musical scores, and long shots of perfect quietude. You can hear the characters breathing between lines.
Though his directorial effect might be akin to tai chi or a steady stream of white noise, Eastwood has become savvy to the sorts of stories best-served by such low-key treatment. As Changeling, for example, languidly pivots on one gut-wrenching turn after the next, the film skews more catastrophic than catatonic. Quiet plus trauma equals unforgettably unnerving (think Mystic River or Letters From Iwo Jima).
Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski pored over old court documents to piece together the bizarre story of Christine Collins, who, after reporting her son Walter missing, was strong-armed into taking a different stray boy home in his place by an already scandal-ridden LA police force hoping for some decent press. After gathering enough evidence to prove the boy was not in fact Walter, Collins confronted the LAPD, only to be whisked away to a psychiatric ward. The case then crossed paths with another sensational story of the time, the Northcott chicken-farm murders.
As Collins, Angelina Jolie sheds the chilly femme-bot persona of past roles to portray the fragile working-class mom struggling against the system as well as loss. Sad-eyed and glossy-lipped, framed by a cloche and a bus window, such shots of Jolie seem poised for an old Walker Evans photo … or those little snippets they play when announcing one’s nomination at the Oscars. When she finally breaks, holding the shirt collar of Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner) bunched in her fists, demanding answers, Eastwood’s calm lens lingers longer than comfortable, turning the emotions raw, the encounter creepy, and the actors riveting.
Changeling follows actual events closer than most films based on true stories do, yet Straczynski’s screenplay errs in shaping the villains too villainously and Collins too saintly. It wouldn’t have taxed the audiences’ capacity for sympathy, for example, to know that Collins hadn’t been abandoned by her husband before her son was born, as the film suggests. He’d been in prison, and both parents initially thought Walter’s disappearance had something to do with unsavory associations. Nor could it have made Capt. J.J. Jones (played by Jeffrey Donovan) any less flawed if audiences had known that he himself had made the connection to the grisly Northcott murders. Rather it would have made both even more human, less caricatured, and as nuanced as this slow, meticulous film itself. •