Reviewing "Changeling" staring Angelina Jolie, with a script by J. Michael Straczynski and directed by Clint Eastwood, is a difficult, heart wrenching task. There are moments while trying to do this review that I wished I could rip it's images out of my memory and place this disk back on the stack of movies I hope to get to but don't have the time for. I've been avoiding writing this "Flick To Hold You Over" review by doing other essential things, like laundry and the dishes... All those years of learning how to procrastinate has really come in handy.
This isn't normal for me. I love period films that dig deep into the mythology of that era while painting the era as a time of heroes and legends. There's nothing more I enjoy watching then a motion picture that displays the style and fashion of that era while at the same time seeing our protagonist over come incredible odds. This motion picture does a wonderful job of bringing us back to the late 1920's and early 1930's, it's beautifully filmed, Ms. Jolie's "Christine Collins" is indeed a hero (rather, heroine) who does overcome incredible odds during this period while trying to fight incredible injustice during the search for her son. But "Changeling" takes some of the joy and admiration out of being a "vintage aficionado" and Retrocentric. The Golden Era loses some of shine and allure...
What makes "Changeling" so difficult to watch for me is the fact that I'm a father of two boys, and this is a movie about a woman searching for her son Walter who might have been butchered with an ax in the "Wineville Chicken Coop Murders," a now infamous case that was partly responsible for exposing the corruption, violence and incompetence of the Los Angeles Police department of that era. Also, the movie includes another parents worst nightmare; the police dragging their heels looking for him when he first disappeared. The notion that the people who are paid to "Protect And Serve" were taking a nonchalant attitude during the first 24 hours of a child's disappearance is enough to keep you awake at night.
As a parent, it's too easy to empathize with someone who loses or lost a child. I'm concerned about my sons and the world they will inherit. I worry about every aspect of their lives while they're growing up. I worry about what they're doing at school, what they're eating here at home and elsewhere, and where they are at every minute every day. Maybe I take the roll of being a concerned dad to a level of obsession and over-protectiveness. I've been this ways since the day both of them were born, and I only got worse after a sitter didn't tell me where she was going with Coppertop (my oldest son's nick-name) and took too long bringing him back. That makes this movie more personal for me. Yet even more horror is heaped onto Christine when the child brought back to her isn't even the one she gave birth do. I can't imagine what it would be like to be told that they found my missing child, only to discover that the child they gave back to me is someone else's.
As if Christine Collins' life wasn't horrible enough, she was sentenced to a mental institution after making public claims that the son returned to her was not actually her boy. Once inside, she first witnesses the horrors done to female inmates such as over-prescription of drugs and Electroconvulsive (also known as electroshock) therapy as a form of torture to keep misbehaving patients quiet. Then she experiences some of these horrors herself when she refuses to cooperate with the doctor and nurses inside.
That's not to say that Christine Collins wasn't without her allies, most notably Rev. Gustav A. Briegleb played by John Malkovich who fights the system with a microphone on his pulpit. Rev. Briegleb calls attention to the corruption of police and the violations of other people's civil rights and isn't afraid to walk into precinct headquarters, the mayor's office or the mental ward, pre-empting Christine's being subjected to the ECT electrodes.
There are a few moments of triumph in this film, starting with Michael Kelly's "Detective Lester Ybarra" following a lead on an apparently unrelated case about a run-away boy from Canada. This leads Detective Ybarra on a journey that uncovers the aforementioned Wineville Chicken Coop Murders where Gordon Northcott and his 14-year-old nephew Sanford Clark killed boys that were abducted in the Los Angeles area.
Skeptical, and maybe even hard-hearted Detective Ybarra interrogates Sanford, who breaks down and confesses to doing horrible things and asks if he's going to hell for what he's done. Sanford's already seen and been a part of more senseless hate, violence, death and becomes a sobbing mess who nearly collapses as he points to all the pictures of the missing boys from L.A. that Detective Ybarra shows him: saying "Killed that one, yep... yep, he's dead... dead, dead, not sure, dead, dead," with every passing picture.
When Detective Ybarra shows Sanford the picture of Walter (you know, the kid they eventually "found" and "gave back" to Christine, who's now in a mental hospital because she claims that boy isn't hers?) Everything comes together for Mr. Ybarra, and in a moment of incredible acting worthy of a golden statue of Oscar, he realizes that every horrible thing said about his police force is true and everything else he knew about human nature is wrong or in question.
Christine is released, thanks in part to Reverend Briegleb and the local news papers. The citizens of Los Angels are in chaos and outraged over the atrocities committed by the police to mask their failures and cruelty. Hearings and trials follow, with the out-come clear... that swift changes to law enforcement must be implemented.
... Meanwhile, the genuinely insane and gleefully evil Gordon Northcott is tried for what he had done. This movie makes a strong case for the death penalty - for all you sick wackos who want to hack our children to pieces, a hang-mans noose waits for you. There's just something so sick and disturbing in Jason Butler Harner's performance of the evil Northcott that there are moments now that I think he took Heath Ledger to school on how to play a psychotic killer.
The movie ends on a high note of false promises... as Christine tries to get her life back and moves up in the telephone company she gets word that one of the missing children believed dead is in fact alive. As she goes to the police station we see her heart ripped right out again as it's clearly not Walter but the boy of another couple. Walter did escape and helped another boy who was caught of the fence. It's ambiguous whether or not he was later captured and killed... Christine continues on thinking there's still hope.
I loved the look and feel of this film, it's flavor is the same as "The Untouchables," "Road To Perdition" and "Millers Crossing." This movie has high caliber attention to detail and love for the period. "Changeling" takes the time to make us feel as if we actually stepped back into the past. Wow, could this really have been the way the 1920's and 1930's looked? Were it possible, I would move mountains to have our world look as good as that again. I want that sense of style and newness back.
But we're talking about a movie that features some gruesome scenes with children abducted, caged in a chicken coop, and then there's a brief point of view from a child with someone killing him with an ax. Not really my idea of a movie I want to relax with at the beginning of the weekend with something to drink, eating take-out while sitting next to my wife and family. There were times I had to ask my sons to leave the room when I thought there was something horrible about to happen... and then shut the movie off all-together when I couldn't see any more. Seeing this movie the second time around, alone, didn't make this any better. I still have a hard time falling asleep after seeing this film two weeks ago. [The night I finished this review, I was up until 2AM and still unable to shake the horror of this movie from my mind.]
I'm frustrated with "Changeling." I wanted to love this movie. I wanted to enjoy it time and again when I need to immerse myself once more in that period. And I can't. The subject matter of this film makes it impossible to watch more than twice. It's an impossible film to really, fully enjoy. I'm sitting here while writing this review, almost pulling my hair out wondering... why couldn't they have made another film? Couldn't they have put the same effort into a different story?
I hate to admit this, but I have no problems watching movies with violence against grown adults, from Nazi's getting what they deserved from a fedora wearing, bull-whip wielding hero, to Al Capone's accomplice taking a bullet to the forehead at Union Station in Chicago, to mobsters and informants getting wacked in woods at "Millers Crossing." But if any movie has violence against children... I'm not watching it any more then I have to before I write a review for it. I don't think I'll be owning a copy of this any time soon, either. If I could just own the extras ("making of," Actor, Director, Scribe interviews...) and never see the actual movie again...
I'm so incredibly grateful to Imagine Entertainment, Malpaso Productions, Relativity Media and Universal Studios for making and distributing this film and I hope this review doesn't dissuade them from making another period film. I really want there to be period films that capture our imaginations and take us back to a time when things were simpler. I want these people to take all the resources, tools and skills that were used to make this film, and I want to see them take another crack at it.
As much as I respect and admire Christine Collins and her struggle to bring her son back home as well as those who helped her fight to keep her dignity and regain her civil rights, all the while understanding her pain and suffering and the cruelty she endured in her greatest moment of need, I'm debating on whether or not this film really needed to be made...
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