Changeling (2008): Eastwood Peels Back the Scab of Burgeoning Los Angeles

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What is it about Los Angeles? Or more specifically what is it about celluloid treatments of L.A.? Every landmark cinematic portrayal of the City of Angels revels in exposing the ugly truth behind its glamorous façade.

Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1998) offered a view of a city controlled by nefarious thugs scheming under the colour of authority. Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) reached even further back in history to reveal the sinister machinations that helped turn L.A. from a desert wasteland into a sprawling metropolis. The silver screen always remains eager to show us the dichotomy at work in L.A.: for every example of glitz and glamour, there is an equally ugly truth behind it.

Even famous American Literature views the nations’ second-biggest city with a sardonic contempt. Philip Marlowe creator Raymond Chandler penned an image of the city as a cesspool, steaming under tacky neon lights. This urban embodiment of all that is good and evil in the human experience forms the focal point of Clint Eastwood’s Changeling, a disturbing yet masterful account of a mother’s search for her missing son.

Eastwood uses L.A. to revisit his favourite themes. As both actor and director, he has always depicted protagonists who are trapped by extraordinary circumstances and powerless against outside aggressors. Remember William Munny being forced by the brutal slaying of a friend to confront his sinister nature in Unforgiven (1992) or General Kuribayashi in Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), overwhelmed by the enemies’ sheer force of number but bound by duty to let all of his men be massacred? 

Eastwood is primarily interested in the heroic struggles of ordinary people rising to a challenge. His most vivid presentation of this came from Hilary Swank’s turn in Million Dollar Baby (2002), as the wounded, naive upstart boxer striving to win the impossible fight against deteriorating health.

Changeling has Eastwood on familiar ground, where he focuses on the true story of a missing boy in late twenties L.A. and his mother’s desperate attempts to locate him in the face of manipulation, bureaucracy and criminality.

Eastwood’s exploration delivers a gem of a film, featuring a truly heavyweight performance form Angelina Jolie. Jolie plays Christine Collins, whose young son Walter disappears one afternoon when Christine is late getting home from work. Five months later, the L.A.P.D. informs Christine her boy has been found and is alive.

Immediately upon the boy’s return, though, Christine declares he’s not her son. However, the L.A.P.D., desperate to avoid bad press, refuse to admit their mistake as they project an image of efficiency demanded from a thriving, growing city.

Christine persists, but her efforts to declare a sham and demand the truth are consistently stymied by the obstinate police department.  The most formidable roadblock is lascivious Captain J.J. Jones, expertly played by Jeffery Donovan.

The performances from both Jolie and Donovan are deeply layered, with Jolie effortlessly shifting from a mother overwhelmed by grief and anxiety, to a woman hardened by the ugly realities that alter her worldview without ever diminishing her fighting spirit. The actress ensured her character’s mood is always appropriate for the narrative’s shifting gears, without ever descending into parody.

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Jolie keeps firm and understated control over the lead role.

What lifts Changeling above the realms of mere melodrama is the genre crossovers present within the script.  Initially, there is a simple mystery involving Walter’s whereabouts.  When Christine becomes a threat to the police and is unjustly incarcerated in a psychiatric ward, the story arc echoes classic noir hallmarks of a doomed protagonist wrongly persecuted by powerful outside forces. The macabre introduction of a possible child killer leans more towards outright horror.

This hybrid of stylistic tropes contributes to a rich, complicated and deeply moving viewing experience. So there never feels like a lull in a movie with a 2-and-a-half hours running time.

Still, the city remains the biggest icon in the movie. Eastwood brings to life an L.A. where the seemingly respectable veneer is typically a convenient mask for the sinister elements lurking beneath. 

So characters are imbued with a devilish sense of ambiguity, never being what they first appear. Figures of authority, so-called “pillars of society,” such as Jones, brutal police chief James E. Davis (Colm Feore) and ward Doctor Jonathan Steele (Denis O’ Hare) are all revealed to be corrupt.  Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) initially appears to be nothing more than a rabble rouser, yet turns out to be the one bastion of decency.

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Donovan’s ruthless LAPD captain is one of several nefarious authority figures.

Eastwood sets his world of deception and abuse of power against the backdrop of a burgeoning Hollywood about to enter its golden age. This visual and thematic contrast goes as far as beginning the film with the original 30’s and 40’s Universal logo, and flagging the shift from Chaplin to the talkies, when Christine correctly predicts Best Picture victory for Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1935). These moments superbly mirror the directors’ comment on L.A., that alongside the show-business glamour is a parallel road of corruption.

An accusation often levelled against Eastwood’s directorial outings is a tendency to be dry and lacking in emotion. His direction here is certainly economical, in keeping with the classical style. And the overall tone, along with the lilting score, is predictably somber.

A minor criticism would be that an emotional response is avoided. Many elements of the story play out in a documentary fashion, offering a neutral recording of events, similar to newsreel, without ever providing answers or judgment. It would be churlish to consider these real problems though.

Eastwood has crafted a vivid, thought-provoking film that never loses its tension or mystery. No small feat for a narrative where the defining moment happens at the beginning.

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