The world has become awfully black-and-white for Clint Eastwood.
The 1992 “Unforgiven” was filled with conflicted characters, moral ambiguities and situations where perspectives of right and wrong shifted uneasily. But in the dozen pictures he's directed since, life has become ever simpler.
In “Changeling,” he's down to crude basics: hissable villains without a streak of decency, a huggable victim who remains strong and plucky, and a babbling, smirking sodomite who murders children after he's had his way with them. The film is set in 1928 and is less sophisticated than most of the movies made during that second year of sound.
Single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) finds her boy missing and asks the Los Angeles Police Department for help. Five months later, Captain J.J. Jones (sneering Jeffrey Donovan) hands her a child who's three inches shorter, has different dental records and can't name his elementary school teacher.
When Collins protests the boy isn't hers, Jones shoves her into a loony bin straight out of “The Snake Pit,” with drooling, screeching inhabitants and nurses leering over electroshock dials. Apparently, the police are one negative newspaper article away from unbearable shame. Citizens of L.A., modestly fazed by the formation of an official Gun Squad that executes criminals without trial, will really be annoyed if the cops misidentify a child.
A doctor tells Collins she'll be set free as soon as she signs a waiver saying the boy is hers and absolving the police. Her only allies are another feisty inmate (the ever-welcome Amy Ryan) and a radio preacher (John Malkovich) who holds the LAPD accountable for this and other atrocities. Meanwhile, the one honorable member of the department (Michael Kelly) stumbles upon a serial killer's ranch, which may be linked to the Collins case.
A brazen title card declares this “a true story.” (Wow, not even “based on.”) However many facts may be accurate, the movie feels contrived, with climax piled upon climax. We're snapped forward and backward by the script by J. Michael Straczynski, who makes his film debut after 24 years of writing for television.
Only Kelly's character always seems human: He's alternately brusque and caring, bureaucratic and committed. Everyone else, even the miscast Jolie, strikes one note and holds it. (You know you've entered Archetype City when Colm Feore, that death's head of an actor, shows up as the corrupt chief of police.)
What could the filmmakers' point be? That Los Angeles was a den of iniquity during the Coolidge presidency? Is this a metaphor, however vague, for degraded life in Los Angeles today? What are we to make of the killer, whose identity is revealed at once but whose background remains unknown? He's so obviously deranged that the idea of trying him for murder – especially with a hangman's rope at the end of the process – seems abhorrent. Could Eastwood and Straczynski be pleading against capital punishment, at least for the insane?
The blunt nature of Eastwood's recent movies hasn't always been so apparent, with Oscar-winning performances by Sean Penn, Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman shining in our eyes. This time, all claims to subtlety are cast aside. The truth, Eastwood seems to say, is quite uncomplicated – a view that has proven singularly unhelpful in America in recent decades.
P.S. Charlotte's John Harrington Bland has a small but significant role as the dentist who testifies that the boy is not who he seems. At the very least, this movie is a step up for the Yale graduate from the likes of “The Girl Next Door” and “Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo.”