“Bad play, Leo.” That’s Gabriel Byrne to Albert Finney in Miller’s Crossing after Finney’s fading crime lord chooses to blow up a situation rather than taking the smart, quiet path through it. Since then that line has stuck with me; it’s the first thing that comes to mind when I see anyone really blow it. So as the credits rolled on Changeling, and well before that moment in fact, there it was. Bad play, Clint.
Changeling is, as Devin already mentioned, a very bad film. It is shrill and dull, and a crushing disappointment. The amazing story encompasses that classic Los Angeles drama of everyday people trapped by power, corruption and fame. It would make perfect fodder for James Ellroy. As the film spooled into it’s last (and fifth) half-hour, I was desperate to see what anyone else would have done with the material; I’d even take DePalma’s lackluster approach to Black Dahlia over Eastwood’s maudlin and empty vision.
True crime material doesn’t come any more lurid or magnetic than the real story behind J. Michael Straczynski’s script. The young son of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) disappears while she’s at work. Months later, an ‘exhaustive’ manhunt spearheaded by LAPD Captain Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) turns up a child who claims to be Christine’s son. She disavows the boy immediately, but plays along with his lie at the request of Jones. The LAPD, repeatedly disgraced under the leadership of Chief James Davis (Colm Feore), could use the PR bump, he says. Jones suggests that she’s in shock and that Christine should take the boy home; her reservations about his identity are probably just nerves.
Christine knows that the new kid isn’t her son at all, but the boy keeps his mouth shut as she becomes more desperate for new action by the police. Gustav Brieglev, a preacher (John Malkovich) running a one-man due diligence campaign against LA cops, tries to help Christine get some legit assistance but that culminates in harassment and a shocking imprisonment. Meanwhile, the discovery of a big crime scene at a rural ranch gives Christine’s claims a lot more ammunition than she really wanted.
Eastwood and Straczynski don’t let a single moment go by without emotional embellishment. For instance, when a cop arrives at the ranch to take custody of a runaway the camera lingers on chicken coops, hatchets and axes. That is, just the stuff that would litter a chicken ranch in the ’20s. (And today.) But we don’t see these tools through the eyes of the cop; we see them through the eyes of a filmmaker who can’t let the story build properly, who can’t resist the temptation to heighten every moment, who can’t wait to let an emotional flood loose. Instead of asking us to observe, Eastwood wants us to be tense and scared.
That impatience makes a lie of Eastwood’s measured camera, deliberate editing and quietly tinkling score. The film is an eight-year old boy in a suit: a presentable façade doesn’t hide the fact that it just wants to gibber and fidget and poke, poke, poke you at every opportunity. The stylistic fidgeting is distracting: be prepared to veer from melodrama through thriller, detective, horror and back again. I thought Dancer in the Dark blew up the retro melodrama formula too large, but when Bjork sang while marching her last steps I still caved in. Changeling only numbed me.
All big eyes and tear-stained cheeks, Angelina Jolie is Eastwood’s go-to when he wants to punch us. For Big Moments it’s cries and wails and “I want my son!”. (Over. And over. And over, again.) For suspicion and anger her eyes hide under the narrow brim of a domed flapper hat. For utter degradation it’s the bare bony shoulders worthy of a Chris Cunningham video. She’s almost a lock for an Oscar nod.
Yet I feel like audiences might mistake Jolie’s willing, pliable performance for a great one. Christine’s circumstances are drawn in letters taller than Everest, so no audience can miss the opportunity to realize how terrible and unfair her plight became. Perhaps easier to miss that the character and performance are as frail and hollow as a balloon, as we’re so frequently invited to inflate it with our own outrage and sympathy.
I’ve never been left so cold by a movie this full of wailing and gnashing of teeth. I could sympathize with the plight of a woman staring down a hostile police force, but the particulars of who Christine Collins was and of her particular fight were largely lost; the movie only awakened that latent fear of ominous authority that is so easy to invoke. When a boy faces his terrible crimes I barely stirred. Only Michael Kelly’s relatively human detective and Jason Butler Harner’s grinning, deranged killer fired up any specific reaction.
I hate to see Clint Eastwood miss as broadly as he does here. I hate seeing eager performances misused, and I hate joining in the inappropriate, unwanted laughter as characters suffer onscreen. (OK, that’s a lie. I love that.) Changeling has all the hallmarks of a film made to appeal to a broad, unthinking audience. Watch it clean up come awards time.