Cast: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Donovan
Director: Clint Eastwood
Runtime: 141 min.
Genre: Crime, Drama
For a Clint Eastwood film, Changeling is a misfire with huge structural problems. I stress on the structural part because Eastwood is one of the finest and smoothest filmmakers of narrative cinema. If not anything, the least we expect of his movies is a fine little engaging piece of story. But that is the very aspect of his craft that fails him here. Part of the blame surely ought to be shared by screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, whose filmography on IMDb suggests this is his first stint for a feature length film. That it is engaging, often riveting and often moving is a testament to the craft at Eastwood’s disposal.
As I moved out of Changeling, trying to pinpoint why the film worked for a while and then began to un-work, I was reminded of Zodiac. The David Fincher film is a masterpiece of construction, the likes of which have seldom been witnessed. It is a film that ought to be poured over and over just to learn how to approach a subject matter of such magnitude and lend it the gravity it so very deserves. Now, why am I invoking Zodiac here, you might ask. I will reply with a little bit of plot, mix a little bit of history into it, and hope you get my explanation why Changeling fails.
It is 1928 Los Angeles. Christine Collins (Ms. Jolie) is a single mom taking care of her nine-year old Walter Collins. She returns home from work one evening to find her son missing. She calls the police, who in turn reply that nothing can be done until the kid has been missing for more than 24 hours. She waits, and the she calls again, and the police pursue. Three months fly by, during which Christine has been incessantly making calls to the cops and praying to them for any possible leads. No avail. And then, one evening, she is paid a visit by a charming young LAPD cop Captain Jones (Mr. Donovan) to deliver her personally the news of her son’s discovery. It is quite a scene, where Ms. Jolie for once exhibits the kind of truthful emotions which seemed to have escaped her of late. But more than that what’s satisfying is how Eastwood chooses to pay as much attention to the smile of satisfaction and relief on Captain Jones’ face as he looks at Christine coil under the immense joy. It is a form of basking, one that feels earned, a pleasure that is all yours when someone has been helped and cannot thank you enough.
They rush to the station where they await the grand return of little Walter. A huge press contingent is already waiting and the police department, which we learn was the city’s premier whipping boy during those times, is wasting no opportunity in garnering good rep for once. The train halts, the boy comes out, Christine looks at him, and she declares that is not her son. Captain Jones, in a remarkable turnaround towards the contrived, turns into one of those two-dimensional villains we all can expect from time to time in an Eastwood film. Remember the family in Million Dollar Baby, and how shamelessly caricatured they were. And that, there, is the first sign of the troubles that are in store in plenty as Changeling gallops, and then rambles towards its end.
Christine runs from pillar to post, and the evil arms of the law create impediments at every turn. She is helpless and is forced to keep the little kid at home. She is told she might be imagining stuff, despite the fact that this boy is three inches shorter than her son and is circumcised. Most definitely not her son.
Now, reader, you would do well to learn about the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. For starters, you could visit here. Mr. Straczynski’s script never seems to wander away from what I believe are the facts, and that I believe is commendable. But what is dumb is the way he incorporates them. It has been close to 45 minutes, and we’ve been totally immersed in Christine’s story, when the film introduces us to the Wineville case. Imagine this. A film that has been following only one thread, where every conversation and every word in it has no other function other than to advance the plot. And all of a sudden we’re made privy to a call to the police headquarters that speaks of some Chicken Coop place. And that is amateurish.
Therein lays my explanation. Changeling is structured as a single thread for much of its initial part and we’ve almost been conditioned to a film that deals with the story of a mother who has lost her son. All of a sudden, the film grows wings and ambitions and it starts digressing into other threads, specifically those of a serial killer. It is a mighty interesting little story, mind you, and the understated way in which Eastwood deals with the parallel story of Sanford Clark demonstrates why he is such a great filmmaker. Eastwood’s sensibilities lie towards a matter-of-fact narration, and whenever his melodramatic instinct take over he tends towards the horribly contrived. Eastwood is at his best when he shows the action and leaves us to grapple with its undertones. And little Sanford Clark’s tale is much more reminiscing of the shattering power of an Eastwood film than Christine’s, which feels false.
Consider Zodiac, which announces its ambitions upfront and kind of exposes all its threads in the initial part. As an audience, we’re already looking at the bigger picture and that allows a film to smoothly traverse even to the more personal needs of a character. Zodiac’s genius is in how it makes a character out of the collective whole, and then chooses to visit each one of them. It is both an epic and a personal story. In a way, it is a hyperlink film (film which deal with multiple threads – Magnolia, Crash), and a single thread film at the same time. Zodiac starts as an epic and ends like one. Changeling does the opposite. It starts as a personal story, where it is at its most effective, and decides to add threads as it moves along in its hope to being an epic. And that feels as if someone’s straying of the path, and that induces restlessness and boredom.
Eastwood’s visual style oddly artificial too. In that classic old-school style of his, we’ve always found a lingering grimness, a sense of danger that is unsettling. But as I mentioned before, Eastwood is good at personal stories that focus on the moralities of a few individuals. He isn’t an intellectual, or one to philosophize. He is a man who can ask difficult and often impossible questions, and not one necessarily comfortable making grand statements. He is a man of great experience, someone who possesses life and its many sedimentary layers. He can perform introspection, and when he is doing that here (with little Sanford’s story), his calm style (one which is partly influenced by dark noirish settings) feels profoundly tragic. A movie made on that subject (like Frailty) is an idea that fascinates me to no end. But when he employs the same style for making feminine statements, or anti-establishment statements, he loses the plot. There’re court proceedings shown in detail which add nothing but impatience, and we wonder if the film would have been served better if he chose to portray them through footnotes that appear at the end of films. After a point of time, the film falls into the rambling mode and simply loses us. A similar problem was felt at the heart of Flags of our Fathers too. That was pretty mediocre, save for its intentions. Ditto here, where once we’re done feeling for Christine, the film carries on when it should have ended. And if it didn’t, I believe a thing or two ought to be learnt from Zodiac, on how to linger and why to linger.
On an interesting note, there’s Amy Ryan in the film. Last year, she played a character who loses her daughter, and the whole police department is embroiled. The film was Gone Baby Gone, and that was a film Clint Eastwood would have been mighty proud of.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Cast: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Donovan