The Changeling

Angelina Jolie’s Oscar attempt.

Angelina Jolie in The Changeling

Like an election conducted in a one-party state, The Changeling (Universal) offers its audience a single choice: to identify completely with Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), the kind, beautiful, persecuted single mother whose 9-year-old son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), disappears from their Los Angeles home one afternoon in 1928. (The film is based on a true story that made tabloid headlines at the time.) To make extra-double-sure that our loyalties never waver, the director, Clint Eastwood, stuffs the ballot box by surrounding the numinous Christine with scoundrels. The LAPD investigator assigned to her case (Jeffrey Donovan) is more concerned with burnishing the reputation of his corrupt department than tracking down the missing boy. In collusion with his equally bloodless boss (Colm Feore), he tries to pass off a runaway child, picked up five months later, as Christine’s son.

Slate V: The critical response to The Changeling and other movies opening this weekend.

The primal horror of this premise—a stranger is suddenly delivered to your home with the bland assurance that he’s a member of your family—could have made for a movie as frightening as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and as psychologically astute as Gaslight, the 1944 film in which Charles Boyer slowly convinces a perfectly sane Ingrid Bergman that she’s going mad. Instead, The Changeling settles for middlebrow uplift and handsomely conventional melodrama. Unlike the three-hankie “women’s pictures” of the ‘30s and ‘40s, which Eastwood explicitly cites—the long middle section, set in a psych ward, comes straight from the 1948 potboiler The Snake Pit—The Changeling doesn’t invite the viewer to share in its heroine’s disorientation, rage, and grief. Rather, it keeps us at a stately remove, presenting Christine’s suffering as a kind of religious tableau.

FBI profilers must only pray that real serial killers telegraph their intentions the way actor Jason Butler Harner does: by snickering from beneath a sweaty forelock, jabbering nonsensically, and fondling a rifle in the back of a flatbed truck. From the second he appears, it’s evident that Harner’s character, a chicken farmer named Gordon Northcott, is up to unwholesome shenanigans in some way related to the Collins boy’s disappearance. A kindly juvenile-crimes cop, Detective Ybarra (Michael Kelly) picks up a teenage runaway on Northcott’s property and interrogates him—an interrogation that will lead to revelations so shocking they will cause the investigator’s cigarette ash to fall to the floor in slow motion.

In addition to Detective Ybarra, Christine has one other ally in her quest, the Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), a local preacher and radio evangelist who’s on a crusade to expose corruption in the LAPD. At Briegleb’s urging, Christine holds a press conference detailing her plight—with dire consequences. Casting Malkovich against type as a good guy was a smart idea, but handing him a role that’s so thoroughly good sort of defeats the purpose. Briegleb is such an asexual namby-pamby that we never get any insight into his motives for standing up for the hapless Christine. Is he attracted to her? Awed by her? Or simply using her as a prop in his own vendetta? Malkovich’s Robin Hood-like character never rises above the level of deus ex machina plot device (though it does give the actor a chance to repeat the fun-to-say name “Gustav Briegleb” in that inimitably menacing voice).

Angelina Jolie’s performance as Christine Collins will be derided by some as Oscar-grubbing. She certainly runs through the full checklist of Academy-pleasing tropes: unearned suffering, lush period costumes (I want that acorn brooch), and plucky courage under duress. But Jolie isn’t really to blame for this movie’s clomping heavy-handedness. For one thing, she’s profoundly miscast as an ordinary working-class woman gullible enough to be gaslighted by unscrupulous cops. Who among us believes that Angie J. couldn’t clean up the LAPD with her own bare hands while roller-skating in high heels? (Jolie really does roller-skate in high heels in this movie; it’s part of her character’s job as the constantly mobile supervisor of a telephone switchboard and one of the period details that makes The Changeling look as terrific as it does.)

It may be that Jolie’s extracurricular celebrity is now so outsized that it compromises her ability to disappear into a role (a phenomenon I wasn’t alone in observing at work in last year’s A Mighty Heart—as superbly as Jolie played Mariane Pearl, you never forgot who she really was). But, honestly, Angelina Jolie was never one to disappear into a role. She’s always played women who are larger than life—too glamorous and tough and special to be assimilated into their respective milieus. Jolie is a freak of nature, sexier and crazier and more powerful and just plain more than the rest of us; that’s what we love about her in the tabloids and in the movies. If Eastwood had wanted to cast someone who’d be convincing as a careworn single mother vulnerable enough to be taken in at first by the child-switching trick, he could have chosen Amy Ryan, whose always-welcome face briefly appears as the tough-but-kind prostitute who gives Christine advice in the loony bin.

The mere presence of such a character—the hooker with a heart of gold! who stands up to the bullying, electroshock-dealing doctor!—points to the fact that like many of Eastwood’s late movies, this one takes place in a deeply phony moral universe. How hard is it to like a baby chick better than the hobnailed boot that’s stomping on it? As gifted as Angelina Jolie may be, there are only so many different inflections she can give to the monotone refrain, “Please help me find my son.” All of Eastwood’s rigorous craftsmanship seems wasted on a movie whose message never rises above the bumper-sticker admonition that “mean people suck.”