dir: Clint Eastwood
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Before Gran Torino, the highest grossing and 437th film directed by Eastwood, stunk up the multiplexes and delighted American crowds with its rascally racist protagonist bellowing at Hmong immigrants to get off his lawn whilst aiming a shotgun at them, Clint unleashed this curious little true crime / period piece movie to less fanfare but more critical acclaim.
At least initially. Before it premiered at Cannes, and was still known as The Exchange, the buzz was that it was one of Clint’s best films. Of course, after actual humans and not PR cyborgs saw the film, a resounding ‘meh’ was heard to echo around the cinemas of the world. Angelina Jolie receiving a nomination for playing the main character here is very strange, unless, there’s a new Biggest Lips – Anglo Category I haven’t heard of to be honoured at the next Academy Awards, but otherwise most of the world tried to pretend the film never existed.
So it was a bit of a surprise when I found the film quite enjoyable and interesting despite Jolie’s presence, since she has the thankless role of playing a mother whose most compelling dialogue is “I want my son back” and “this boy is not my son, I want my son back.”
There’s only so many ways you can say it, and only so many tears you can cry before the audience starts thinking “yeah, okay, we get it, now let’s move on”.
It’s not remarkable that the events depicted here are based on something that actually happened in the 1920s-1930s. What’s remarkable in some instances is that they ever occurred in the first place.
The main point here, as is the main point in plenty of films and books I can think of set in the era and location (the works of James Ellroy and some of the movies based on them, Chinatown) of Los Angeles in the early part of the 20th Century, is that, goddamn, were the cops corrupt back then.
Not now, of course. Now they’re all towering pillars of virtue and humble goodness. But back then, good God were they villainous. Nothing was too rotten or too corrupt or negligent for them to do. Openly murdering people and leaving their bodies in the streets, treating the various by-ways and highways of California as their personal fiefdom, brutalising the citizens they were meant to be protecting and serving with practically no obstacles to their corruption.
When a child goes missing in 1928, the LAPD see this as an opportunity to get some positive press b y reuniting mother and son. The mother, Christine Collins (Jolie) has been tirelessly badgering authorities to find her son, and a boy located several states away seems to be the boy everyone is looking for.
But when mother and son are reunited, mother seems less than ecstatic to have the little tyke back in her life. When she complains about it to the police captain who keeps assuring her that everything is fine, he and a bunch of doctors and other scam artists on the payroll of the police do their darnedest to convince her that she’s the one with the problem, not the boy.
The Irish-sounding captain keeps bellowing at her that clearly she enjoyed her freedom way too much during the kids absence, and she’s trying to shirk her responsibilities, the nasty slut. Why doesn’t she just go home and shut up about the whole thing, and look after the boy like she’s supposed to?
When she just won’t shut up about it, the righteous police captain in question decides she needs to be locked up for her own safety, in a mental institution where she’s surrounded by a whole heap of women whose only mental health problems seem to be having had the temerity to piss off members of the LAPD’s finest.
Why can’t they just accept their lot in life, and accept the fact that the men of the LAPD know best about every aspect of everything?
Why can’t Christine Collins accept that the child given to her by the LAPD, who happens to look nothing like her son, is three inches shorter than her son was before his disappearance, and who doesn’t know a single thing apart from who the cops tell him his mother is meant to be, is her son? After all, she’s only a woman, and the men of the LAPD, including a horribly corrupt doctor, and the horribly corrupt psychiatrist on their payroll, only have her best interests at heart.
It seems inexplicable that such circumstances could have arisen, or that the LAPD could ever have been so arrogant as to try to assert that a child clearly not the one intended was a woman’s son, against her own eyes and judgement, but this is a product of its time, of course, anachronistic as it is. Had she not been a single mother, it’s debatable that they would have even tried in the first place, but the problem becomes less that they’ve got the wrong kid initially, as opposed to the manner in which the LAPD, comfortable with killing people in order to never admit fault, could not admit that they’d made a mistake. Christine’s dogged refusal to accept the bizarre circumstance puts her in serious danger not only of never seeing her actual son again, but of disappearing into a system from which she might never escape or recover.
It’s interesting watching Jolie return to a location (the nuthouse) that won her acclaim and the credibility she so desperately craved, when she played Jack Nicholson in Girl, Interrupted. Her junior One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest support role alongside Winona Ryder (back when Winona was better known for acting than shoplifting and she still had a career) was a loud and over-the-top performance that cemented her in the moviegoing public’s mind, and showed that she could do more in movies than just take her clothes off. Now, of course, since she’s a genuine A-List member of Hollywood royalty, there’s no nudity anymore, and she can afford to dial down her performances. Of course, she’s a member of Hollywood’s A-list royalty, so she overacts whenever she wants to (and no-one, not even Old Man Clint can tell her not to), but at least she doesn’t during the part of the flick where she’s in the mental hospital.
The mental hospital bit, seeing as it degenerates into a Kafkaesque nightmare whereby asserting your sanity is proof of insanity; being upset about having been incarcerated against your will is proof of clinical depression, or being relatively happy is proof of disassociation from reality, she is in a complete bind from which many women of the era (we are meant to assume) who don’t have the resilience, lips or supporters that Jolie’s character does, would never escape from.
Chilling as this is, the film manages to tell a whole other story on top of the one about Christine Collins fighting for justice, which seems related only tangentially at first. And as chilling as slipping through the cracks of the mental health system circa the 1930s might seem, there’s nothing nastier than seeing the beginning of America’s love affair with serial killers.
When they use the term in the film, it seems horribly anachronistic, especially considering the trouble they go to trying to make everything look authentic, whether it be the clearly CGI skyline and trolley-filled streets of olde worlde LA, or the women at the telephone exchange where Christine works rolling around on roller skates to improve their productivity. There are several such clunkers in the script, but it didn’t bug me too much, but it has particular significance here.
Past the halfway mark of the film, when the police are attending to the matter of a Canadian boy overstaying his welcome and needing a good deporting to set him straight, they uncover a brutal state of affairs involving the deaths of countless kids at the hands of some twitchy lunatic who flat out just loves killing boys. It doesn’t take a genius or even one of Jolie’s adopted kids to figure out how this story is going to converge with Christine’s search for Walter.
What’s most surprising about this is not that there were lunatics killing large numbers of people back in the 20s and 30s, since I’m sure every stage of human civilisation has included people killing other people for reasons other than acquiring land, wives, slaves or because of funny eye contact. What’s strange is how, from the moment the clueless cop starts looking for the Canadian kid, the entire vibe of the film changed to the extent where I thought I was watching Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Bootlegging Years. Clint Eastwood has hit pretty much every genre and style of moviemaking in his long and varied career, but that kind of horror seems like an ill-fitting pair of pants pulled way up to an old man’s arm pits. It’s as if those bits of the film were filmed by someone else.
I also couldn’t help but wonder why Christine’s search for Walter made her a cause celebre, but that the other twenty or so missing children had warranted no mention in the papers of the day until the grisly revelations in what would become known as the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders.
The two seemingly unrelated stories (as if they could be) converge in the ugliest and least satisfying way possible, in a highly contrived and unbelievable manner which implies that at the same time as Christine is incarcerated against her will, the slaughter of innocents is uncovered casting doubt on the LAPD’s repeated assertions of Christine being wrong about her son’s return, prompting a court case against the LAPD simultaneously running with the case against the alleged serial killer. It’s a messy contrivance even for a movie, and a Hollywood movie at that. The messiness of the script, and the jaw-dropping, achingly bad moments which transpire, usually at the hands and mouths of the supporting actors, aren’t enough to sink the production completely.
Clint is an old hand at putting films together, with his particular prestige sheen, and Changeling is no exception. Even as I was telling myself that there were problems with the storytelling throughout, and that Jolie wasn’t really doing much apart from seeming eternally put-upon and beatifically martyr-like in between wearing outfits no woman in her circumstances could have afforded (but looking wonderful in them, naturally), it still wasn’t enough to detract from my enjoyment. It’s a fascinating tale, telling a story so completely of its time that it seems almost quaint and mad at the same time. All around, the short cuts and intelligence-insulting moments aren’t enough to sink this competently told, essentially feminist story which possesses little beyond functional acting performances, but at least has plenty of detail and a compelling scope, seeing as after that famous Christine Collins case occurred, the LAPD apologised for all wrongdoing and never allowed any police corruption to occur ever again. Right?
So, in the end, everyone wins. Especially you the viewers, you lucky bastards.
7 times, as with every flick with Angelina Jolie in it, you get distracted by Those Lips and stop caring about whatever goddamn story they’re trying to tell out of 10
“Fuck you and the horse you rode in on.” – such language, and from a mother, too – Changeling.