The Changeling

Will the Real Clint Eastwood Please Come Back?
“The Changeling,” directed by Clint Eastwood. Universal/Imagine, 141 minutes.
You’ve probably seen previews for “The Changeling,” with Angelina Jolie pounding her breast and wailing, “I want my son back!” before she is carted off to a psychiatric prison ward. The previews promise corruption in the police department, a mad psychiatrist, and a tantalizing mystery, all in one film. Who wouldn’t be interested?
Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) is a single mother who comes home from work one evening to an empty house. She has no idea where her son has gone. No one in the neighborhood has seen him. He hasn’t eaten his lunch. It is every mother’s worst nightmare. Five months later the police find a boy in Illinois and bring him back to be united with his mother–but she doesn’t recognize him. When she complains to the police and begs them to continue their search, the police chief has her committed.
In one sense, the film delivers on its premise. Jolie’s character does fight the system and expose corruption at several levels, including a loophole that allows the police to incarcerate unruly whistle-blowers without a trial–sort of a precursor to Gitmo. The film reveals the perversity of a system in which it is virtually impossible to prove one’s sanity. Since the doctor has deemed her unbalanced for not recognizing her son, the only way she can get out of the mental institution is to sign a false statement that she now accepts that he is her son. But signing that confession would demonstrate that she had indeed not recognized him, thereby proving that she was mentally unbalanced…the classic Catch 22.
It’s a frightening issue, one that hasn’t gone away: many states have an equivalent of Florida’s Baker Act, under which a person can be committed to 30 days in a mental institution without recourse, if a psychologist deems the person dangerous to himself or others. (And when the psychologist is employed by the police department, it’s pretty easy to predict whether the detainee will be so deemed.) My own daughter came frighteningly close to being Bakered when she was 17, so I know how quickly it can happen. (See “Splish Splash I Was Taken to Jail,” Liberty, November 2003.)
But previews are supposed to do more than just give an idea of what a film is about. They also need to foretell its tone and subject matter accurately, so the viewer can decide when and whether to see it. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a comedy, sometimes for a thriller, sometimes for a romance or a drama. I don’t want to know the whole storyline in advance, but I do want to know what emotions are going to be piqued before I go to a movie. And that’s where I felt duped by Eastwood this time.
So let me warn you here: the official previews–and also the reviews I’ve read–leave out the brutal second storyline, the one that shows the horrifying fate of 20 kidnapped boys. I felt completely blindsided by the grisly side of this film. Eastwood presents it masterfully–the strategically placed “smoking gun” as the detective searches the old farmhouse (in this case the “gun” is a scattering of hatchets and cleavers), the suspense-laden soundtrack, the close-up shot of the detective’s untapped cigarette ash demonstrating his own horror as he interviews a young witness. Great film-making. But come on, Clint. Couldn’t you have warned me?
The main storyline, about Collins’ victory over the police force and the psychiatric institution, seems incongruous in light of what happened to those boys. How could a mother smile about sticking it to the police department when she has imagined her son calling out for her in terror before he was hacked to pieces? I found nothing to cheer about.
I also found it hard to accept how unkind Jolie’s character is to the boy masquerading as her son. He’s a little boy, for heaven’s sake. Something terrible must have happened to him to make him try to pass himself off as someone else. Couldn’t we offer him a little compassion? I felt the same way about the young witness to the crime.
But here’s the really strange fact about the film: despite its horrifying storylines, despite Eastwood’s gorgeous sets and attention to detail, and despite Jolie’s constant tears and emotion, I felt strangely detached. It seems as though Eastwood comes at the story from all different directions, but never with any conviction beyond wanting to film it beautifully. As a result, it falls flat.
Moreover, for all her tears and agony, Jolie herself is emotionally detached. Notice I use the actress’s name, and not her character’s. That’s because she never connects with Christine Collins. Watch the best actresses in the business–women like Meryl Streep, Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis. Notice how they react in a scene with their whole bodies, listening intently to the other character, seeming to gather their thoughts spontaneously, from the situation, not from a script. By contrast, I’m always aware of Angelina Jolie pretending to be someone else. She’s too aware of how the camera will capture her profile, her lips, her tear-stained makeup. She’s not afraid to look grimy, but even then she seems to be thinking, Look at me, see how I throw myself into this scene! Now give me another Oscar!
In short, Eastwood can go to bed early on Oscar night this year. After directing a string of remarkable successes (“Mystic River,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Million Dollar Baby”), he produced a real stinker with “The Changeling.” Can someone take this changeling back and find the real Clint?

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