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Case Number 15783

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Changeling

Universal // 2008 // 142 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Roy Hrab (Retired) // February 25th, 2009

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All Rise...

Judge Roy Hrab had hoped the soundtrack featured David Bowie and Clint Eastwood singing "Ch-ch-ch-ch-changelings."

Editor's Note

Our review of Changeling (Blu-Ray), published February 17th, 2009, is also available.

The Charge

"He's not my son."

Opening Statement

Changelings—a child of a supernatural being (e.g., troll, elf, demon) surreptitiously exchanged for a human child—have been a feature of folktales from all over the world for thousands of years. Moreover, people actually believed in such superstitions early into the 20th century, even in developed nations like Germany. For those that are interested in the folklore, I recommend reading an essay by Professor D.L. Ashliman's on the University of Pittsburgh's website (see Accomplices). This Changeling is a changeling story firmly rooted in reality.

Facts of the Case

In 1928, single-mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie, A Mighty Heart) returns from work to find her 9-year-old son Walter is missing. Five months later and with much fanfare, the much maligned LAPD returns to Christine a boy they claim is Walter, hoping the story will restore their reputation sullied by allegations of corruption and violence. However, Collins says the boy is not her son. The police dismiss the notion they have made a mistake, telling her she is in shock and should just take her son home. Reluctantly, Christine agrees. Soon the evidence indicating the boy is not Walter grows. Collins continues to make pleas to the police and the media. The LAPD, seeing what they thought to be a public relations coup turn into further evidence of incompetence, have Collins committed to the psychopath ward at a mental institution.

The Evidence

This story is so shocking and strange it would be easy, especially for a modern audience, to dismiss Changeling as an unrealistic thriller, but there's a catch: it is a true story. Moreover, it is a dark and mesmerizing saga made more compelling by Clint Eastwood's masterful direction. He lets events unfold slowly and quietly without resorting to the over-the-top performances or thunderous soundtrack a lesser director would have used to emphasize the drama. Eastwood recognizes the story requires no exaggeration.

Eastwood and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5) have packed a lot of themes into this film. On the surface, it's an historical account of corruption and misogyny in the early 20th century. The world presented here will be unrecognizable to most. Corruption and misogyny exist today, but the naked displays of them during this time, as presented in Changeling, are difficult to comprehend…or perhaps not, depending on where you live in the world. It's appalling to think a sane woman could be tossed into a mental institution at the stroke of a pen, for questioning the authority of the police. There are more than a few moments that induce a feeling of disgust at how deep corruption had rooted itself. At the same time, it is amazing that Collins with the help of moral crusader Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich, In The Line Of Fire) and others were able to overcome the machinations of such a morally rotten administration.

Historical relevance aside, Changeling is also a modern day morality tale. For example, Walter is kidnapped when Christine agrees to work on her off day, a day that she promised to take Walter to the movies. By going to work Christine not only chooses her career over spending time with her son, but also breaks a promise. The consequence is that she loses her child. One could suggest this is statement about single mothers, but I think the messages here are that there is nothing more important than family and that moments spent away from children are moments lost forever.

Additionally, the LAPD thinks they can salvage their reputation by falsely and obstinately insisting the case is solved rather than admitting a mistake. However, the truth catches up with them, resulting in further humiliation and destroyed careers. Sound familiar? Know of any politicians who could benefit from this lesson?

The final third of the film, which unveils a serial killer element which I will refrain from describing, delves into fear, guilt, and the impenetrability of evil. Who knew it was possible to tell a great story and give a comprehensive lesson in morals all in one film?

Presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby 5.1 surround, the video and audio are both excellent. Changeling is beautifully shot and the transfer does it justice. The picture is sharp and the colors, which are soft to capture the style of the times, are without fault. The audio is clear, with dialogue and sound effects coming through fine. Eastwood's understated piano score is solid, even if it's repetitive. When it comes to extras, this release is weak. There is a mildly interesting behind-the-scenes featurette, misleadingly titled "Partners in Crime: Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie," featuring interviews with the cast and crew about the making of the film. Also, there's a forgettable shorter featurette, "The Common Thread: Angelina Jolie Becomes Christine Collins," about Jolie getting into character and her costumes.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Unlike recent Eastwood films such as Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, the characters in Changeling are wafer thin. Collins is a devoted mother; Briegleb is an anti-corruption crusader; Captain Jones (Jeffrey Donovan, Burn Notice) is an arrogant misogynist. There is nothing else. Good, bad, or conflicted, these people are one-dimensional. This is understandable given that Eastwood's wants the story to speak for itself rather than create additional drama by inventing personalities and psychologies.

Above everything, the cast has little to do. The performances are solid. However, in most cases, I credit the quality of the acting to Eastwood's tight direction, rather than the specific performers. For example, Jolie's performance has been heralded by many, but I believe this has to do with people confusing the power of the story and Eastwood's mastery of the material with Jolie's acting ability. She's believable, but there's nothing particularly unique she brings to the table. Malkovich, who is a great actor, doesn't register much in his small role, but avoids delivering his lines through inappropriate ranting. Donovan is suitably smarmy, but that's all he's required to do. Different actors could have filled these roles without the film losing any of its power. Yet there is one performer who stands-out: Jason Butler Harner (Next) as Gordon Northcutt. It's a performance so creepy, slimy, and snivelling, that Harner will probably be typecast into psycho roles.

Closing Statement

Changeling is a riveting real-life horror tale spun by a great filmmaker. It's definitely worth watching.

The Verdict

Notwithstanding the lack of extras…Not Guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 93
Audio: 90
Extras: 20
Acting: 80
Story: 95
Judgment: 88

Perp Profile

Studio: Universal
Video Formats:
• 2.40:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 142 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Genres:
• Crime
• Drama
• Historical
• Mystery

Distinguishing Marks

• Featurettes








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