I have a theory to posit: I think Changeling is so bad - and make no mistake about it, it is very, very bad - so that it would set our expectations for Gran Torino so low that the quietly ruminating film would be hailed as a masterpiece. However, this not being a review for GT, I have the unpleasant duty to lay down before you why Changeling is such a dull, crushing letdown of a film.
Director Clint Eastwood and writer J Michael Straczynski have taken a tale about the serial killings of 20 children, a missing child, the corruption of a city's police force, and the wrongful committal of a person in a harsh and cruel psychiatric facility, and made it a dull, boring film. Not only that, they have managed to punctuate it with so much needless maudlin and overdramatic imagery, the overall feeling is that of irritation.
The son of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) disappears while she's at work. After many months of anxious waiting, a manhunt by police officer J J Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) turns up a child who they claim is Christine's son. She refuses to accept the boy as her son, while the police department plays this up as a PR opportunity. She is asked to take the boy home, and that she is only feeling shock and overwhelming emotions.
When Christine becomes more desperate for new action by the police, and is helped by a kindly preacher Gustav Brieglev (John Malkovich), it leads to her shocking imprisonment in a psychiatric ward and brutality at the hands of the caretakers. Meanwhile, a big crime scene is discovered in a rural farm, and her case gets the sort of evidence that she did not need.
Eastwood and Straczynski cannot wait to embellish every moment with forced emotional cues. In the clothing of an understated deliberate sheep, this is a wolf with zero restraint or tolerance for intelligence. Instead of making a film where the viewers are treated intelligently, this is a film where the users are treated as crazy lunatics who won't know what to feel until Eastwood tells them what to feel.
Eastwood cannot resist the temptation to spell everything out for us while at the same time remaining smug in the technical competency, his measured editing and deliberate music score. The truth is that they even further harm the overall effect of the film, because the incongruent handling of the subject makes the movie a chore to sit through. What should have been a riveting drama or a chilling procedural, is a mash-up of a boring courtroom slugfest, a nutty thriller, an extremely fake drama and an unexciting rage against the system film.
Eastwood has treated Changeling as a sparring match between us and him. He will unleash emotional brutal punch after punch until we kneel and submit. His upper cut here is Angelina Jolie. Her Oscar nom is no joke - he uses her to state the obviousness of the situation, and the tone of film at any given point. Is she crying with big tears? Drama. Is she hiding half her face below her hat and looking suspiciously? Mystery. Is she bony and screaming? Ah, prison movie.
It is easy to feel sorry for a character going through so much, which is obviously what the writer and director are banking on, which distracts from one crucial problem - there is no character. There is absolutely no character study or understanding of the woman behind the screaming blubbering mess we see. This is so true for the rest of the film too - none of the characters serve to have any depth in themselves or the narrative other than to punctuate the film with whatever the makers want at that point.
True to Eastwood's oeuvre of late, this film is complete Oscar bait, and dressed as such. All the ornamentation and facade of a potential Oscar nominee is intact, but the source is so thoroughly unwatchable, that I am forced to use harsher words to dissuade you from watching this. I like Clint. I hate to see him giving me this unwatchable mess to watch. I hate to laugh at moments meant to evoke pithy emotions. But more than that, I hate to see a talented cast and a master director wasting themselves on a cipher.