Not to be confused with the 1980 George C. Scott haunted house thriller The Changeling, Clint Eastwood’s wrenching drama belongs in the category of ‘truth is stranger than fiction.’ Christine Collins (wonderfully portrayed by Angelina Jolie) is a fairly ordinary woman and devoted single mother bringing up a little boy named Walter (Gattlin Griffith) in the roaring 20’s. Of course, in that era single motherhood wasn’t exactly looked up to, so Christine suffers some adversity from people who think she’s an unfit mom and that little Walter needs a father, but she pretty much keeps on keeping on until her son vanishes from their Los Angeles home.
Hours turn to days turnmonths, and Christine’s fear that she’ll never see her son again turns to abject terror and finally, despair. Then, a miracle (?), a boy matching Walter’s description turns up in another state and is handed over to Christine. But this boy is not her son. The LAPD desperately try to convince her that yes, this doppelganger is Walter, and she will adjust to his somewhat changed manner and appearance; but Christine knows better. And she finds an in fiery minister Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who is convinced that the Los Angeles Police Department is a corrupt organisation with a multitude of dirty secrets, But what are they hiding from Christine?
You can pretty much count on a film directed by Clint Eastwood to be good, and this movie is no exception. Changeling explores the extent of familial love between mother and son, in the midst of an epic instance of gaslighting of a confused but strong-willed woman. Christine becomes a stronger and stronger character throughout the film, but to the price of her innocence. Angelina Jolie does a great job here, but I was also surprised by Jason Butler Harner’s inspired performance. I won’t tell you what Harner’s role in this story is for fear of spoiling it, but I will say he has a David Tennant-like flair for eccentricity and villainy (think Jessica Jones,) and proves that incorporating a spark of madness while flirting with being over-the-top is not necessarily a bad thing.
For most of it’s duration, Changeling is as immersive as a good page-turner. It only falters and seems a bit overlong in the last thirty minutes, when it wanders into standard courtroom drama territory. Regardless, it is surprisingly emotionally arresting and tragic, especially considering the lukewarm reviews it received.
Changeling plays on the human fear of not being believed, of being thought crazy and incompetent. When the corrupt cops lock Christine in a mental institution for not heeding their words and keeping her mouth shut, a hospitalized prostitute with a proverbial heart of gold (Amy Ryan) tells Christine that women are naturally assumed to be a bit insane, irrational and unstable, and what’s to keep them from taking anything you say as a sign of unreliability and keeping you there forever? That’s the catch-22 Christine finds herself in- if she plays it safe and insists she’s well, the doctors will try to draw tell-tale signs of insanity out of her. If she stands by her story, she’s fucked. If she goes either way, she’s fucked. Unless she can be stronger than she’s ever been in her life and find a way to fight the corruption ensnaring her.