Our Rating: 3 out of 5
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
The most gut-wrenching stories are based on actual events. Changeling omits some of the more horrific details of the "chicken house murders" from the 1920's, but enough truth remains to make it a "true story."
It's every parent's nightmare to come home and not know where their child is, but is even worse for single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie). Asked to cover for a coworker at the telephone directory office where she is employed as a supervisor, Christine must tell her sad-eyed son that the movie will have to wait until tomorrow. She reminds him his lunch is in the refrigerator, arranges for their neighbor to come by and check on him, kisses him on the forehead, and runs off to work. Hours later she returns to find her house empty -- no Walter. His sandwich is untouched. His room hasn't been played in. He is nowhere in the neighborhood. And the police won't do anything for twenty-four hours. Christine paces and waits, praying her son will turn up with an explanation. But he never comes home. And then the search begins.
Recent criticism of their barbarian methods of silencing opposition has placed the LAPD in a desperate position to save face and restore their reputation. Behind these ruthless assaults against their integrity is well-known radio personality Reverend Briegleb (John Malcovich), who takes a personal interest in the Collins case. Weeks turn into months and Christine all but loses hope until one afternoon they tell her Walter is fine. He's been found in a diner in Indiana, abandoned by a drifter. Overjoyed, Christine accompanies them to the train station, but the boy who steps onto the platform is not her son. At first she believes her lack of recognition for him is shock -- he has changed and it has been a long time -- but then she starts to notice things. Like how this boy is four inches shorter than Walter, has not had any work done on his teeth, and doesn't remember where he is supposed to sit in his classroom.
Courage is the underlining theme of the film as Christine stands up to an entire corrupt system of government in order to force them to admit the truth. Their retaliation is to smear her in the press and have her illegally institutionalized in a mental asylum. The whammy here is that two different kinds of evil are interchangeable -- what happened to the missing children is only slightly more emotionally disturbing than our incredulousness over what the police attempt to do to Christine. She is all but defenseless and that makes her plight even more gut-wrenching as a corrupt system attempts to silence her. The only redeeming aspect is the presence of her champion and defender, Reverend Briegleb, without whose assistance she would have been powerless. It is nice to see a positive interpretation of a man of faith for once, although it should also be mentioned that the murderer displays psychotic religious tendencies. (An open Bible and rosary is found not far from a bloodied ax in his farmhouse. He speaks of redemption and forgiveness and God after he is condemned to death.)
Director Clint Eastwood knew audiences could only handle so much and so he chose to keep the more awful truths out of the screenplay -- namely that the boys were all sexually abused before being hacked into pieces. He also refrains from showing us explicit violence but the implications are almost as difficult to watch. Our stomachs turn over as we hear stories about what happened to the boys, as well as watch frightening flashbacks. Much like the open-mouthed policeman, we pray it's not true -- and realize it is when digging turns up human remains. A man is hanged and we see the body twitching and jerking for several minutes. Doctors are forced to restrain a woman in a mental asylum, and give her shock therapy to compel her obedience. Language is also something of a problem -- GD is used a half-dozen times, along with several abuses of Jesus' name and general profanities. There are four f-words. There's partial nudity in a psychiatric hospital where Christine is forcibly hosed down (we see parts of her bare breasts and sides). She is then submitted to a vaginal exam (implied).
Changeling is not a pleasant film to watch but it does leave the audience haunted with aspects of the crime and sad for the lives that were ruined not only through the actions of a murderer, but by allowing a corrupt establishment to maintain such absolute control for such a long amount of time. There is a positive outcome of sorts in that all those responsible are punished but at the same time I wish a little more restraint had been used in various aspects of the production. In the aftermath, however, I don't think that is what audiences will remember as much as the horror of knowing genuine evil exists. Only it doesn't always come holding an ax.