Clint Eastwood continues his winner’s streak with Changeling, an eerie accounting of the corrupt handling of the Walter Collins disappearance in Los Angeles back in the late 1920s. The film plays almost like a companion piece to Eastwood’s Mystic River, as both films deal with kidnapping and the loss of a child. However, Changeling is markedly different in that it has an ethereal, other-worldly quality, aided by a ghostly-looking Angelina Jolie in the lead, and Tom Stern’s steely blue cinematography.
The film is based on the true story of Christine Collins, a single mother in Los Angeles who sent her child out to the movies one day and never saw him again. When she reported the disappearance to the police it drew a great deal of press attention, so that when a boy claiming to be her son came forward, the authorities felt pressure to end the drama and tried to convince Collins that the boy really was her son. It seems ludicrous that anyone would try to convince a mother of this, and only a crazy mother would accept such a story. But just the opposite happened. Collins was committed to an institution when she refused to say that the boy was her son.
In the film version, Collins comes home late from work to find her son has left their house and is nowhere to be seen. It’s slightly different to have sent your son out alone to the movies versus leaving the child home alone. Either way, Collins looks guilty, even if it’s obvious that she needs to work and can’t hire a babysitter.
Meanwhile, the police get a lead on another murder case, one that involves other missing boys in the area. This case eventually upends the Collins case, and just like that, Collins is free to go. It’s at this point that the film really comes alive. The torturing of Christine Collins is difficult and somewhat frustrating to watch; we know that eventually the police will have to let her go, but watching her go through it is like being tortured as viewers just for watching the film.
Jolie’s interpretation of Christine is such that she is a bit too weak, too trusting and too polite to confront people when she needs to, which is why it wasn’t hard for the police department to thrust upon her a boy who wasn’t hers. Jolie has said that she channeled her late mother with this interpretation, creating a much more gentle person than one might expect. Women who are wrongfully accused or mistreated in films generally have a rebellious nature that lends the story some conflict. Meryl Streep in A Cry in the Dark or Jessica Lange in Frances, for instance. Jolie probably could have used a little more of her own personality here. As it is, we’re left feeling somewhat frustrated at her character for not doing more to convince the police that she is telling the truth.
Once Collins is freed and the story gets on to the real murders and the trial of the corrupt Los Angeles police force, the film becomes riveting. Would that most of the film were about this aspect of the story. The real story of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders is creepy and fascinating, both in terms of the case itself and how it related to the Collins case. No evidence of Walter Collins was ever found at the crime scene, and Christine Collins spent her entire life looking for her son.