by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I ran Charles the movie Changeling, a 2008 film from Universal directed by Clint Eastwood from a script by J. Michael Straczynski based on an actual case — two cases, really — in Los Angeles in the late 1920’s, back when the Los Angeles Police Department was even more corrupt and domineering than usual (which is saying a lot). It was actually the interface of two cases, the disappearance of 10-year-old Walter Collins (Gattlin Griffith) and the attempt of his mother, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie, top-billed) to find him; and the so-called “Wineville Chicken Coop Murders,” in which chicken ranch owner Gordon Stewart Northcott (Jason Butler Harner) lured pre-pubescent boys into his car (usually by falsely telling them that their parents had had an accident and sent him for them), kidnapped them, drove them to his ranch and there tortured and killed them. A Canadian native, he had an accomplice, 11-year-old Sanford Clark (Eddie Alderson), a distant relative whom he got to help him kill his victims out of fear of his own life after he lured the boy away from his home in Canada with the promise of a vacation in sunny California.
The tie between the two cases is, not surprisingly, that Walter Collins was one of Northcott’s victims — but what made this story really quirky was that in the meantime the police had apprehended another missing boy, Arthur Hutchins (Devon Conti), who had been arrested in DeKalb, Illinois after the man he was with had tried to bum a meal from a diner without paying and had left the kid behind while he supposedly went back to his home to retrieve his money. The LAPD somehow got custody of this kid and decided to create a “success story” by passing him off as Walter Collins and “returning” him to Christine five months after the real Walter’s disappearance — and, when Christine sees through the imposture and realizes the phony “Walter” is not her son (which isn’t hard to figure out; he’s three inches shorter than Walter was when he disappeared, he’s circumcised — the real Walter wasn’t, lucky him! — he doesn’t remember his teacher and he doesn’t have the membranes between his teeth that the real Walter’s dentist had been treating him for), the LAPD has so much of its public image wrapped up in the feel-good story of how they “recovered” this poor mother’s kid that they insist he is Walter, that Christine is just trying to weasel out of her responsibilities as a parent so she can party and date (this is 1928, after all, and the “Roaring Twenties” are in full swing), and when she still insists that the kid the LAPD “reunited” her with is not her real son, they have her incarcerated in a mental institution.
Writer Straczynski was tipped off to the existence of this case when someone he knew at L.A. City Hall stumbled onto the documents about it in a cache of old files that were being cleaned out for destruction, and Straczynski took the files, researched the case for a year and based a good part of the dialogue in his script directly from court transcripts and other contemporary records — though that didn’t stop him from fictionalizing and pulling some of the usual screenwriter’s tricks to heighten the drama of a story that seemingly didn’t need heightening, notably in the rather tacky scene in which Our Heroine is about to be subjected to electroshock treatment and just at that moment her biggest community supporter, Rev. Gustav A. Briegleb (John Malkovich, the film’s male lead — to the extent it has one), shows up to demand her release.
Though the title fits the movie only in the most elliptical way (relating to the ancient myths about people — usually children — who disappeared into a supernatural world and returned distinctly different physically, psychologically and spiritually from how they’d been when they left) and there are a few annoying anachronisms in what’s otherwise a convincing evocation of the 1928-1935 period (electroshock wasn’t used on humans until 1937, the dialogue contains phrases like “serial killer” — a 1970’s coinage; a 1920’s criminologist would have called Northcott a “multiple murderer” — “APB” and “don’t go there,” and towards the end of the film Christine is depicted as listening to the Academy Awards on the radio and having made a bet with a friend that It Happened One Night would win Best Picture; in 1935 the Academy Awards weren’t yet broadcast live and were pretty much of interest only to people in the movie business; they weren’t a mass cultural phenomenon the way they became later), Changeling is a quite remarkable movie.
It’s basically a simple story, told simply (though Charles thought it could have used more of the economy of storytelling of the movies made when it takes place — after seeing James Whale zip through the events of The Kiss Before the Mirror in a mere 67 minutes the deliberate pace of Changeling did tend to pall, and if Eastwood had been able to keep it within two hours instead of stretching it out 21 minutes longer than that, it might have been even better) and directly, and managing to work in some of Eastwood’s obsessions — particularly murders of children and the social response to them — that we know from more personal films of his like Mystic River (which was actually a far weaker film than Changeling, with a vigilante plot line that would have played much better in an Eastwood Western than it did in a contemporary setting).
Oddly, Changeling didn’t start as an Eastwood project at all; it was developed by Ron Howard and his producing partner, Brian Grazer, and Howard was originally set to direct until he ran into scheduling problems with The Da Vinci Code and Eastwood took over the film. It was also Howard’s decision to cast Angelina Jolie as the lead — which is actually one of the better aspects of the film; it’s always nice to see someone who’s been coming off as a spoiled celebrity brat get a down-to-earth role that proves she can really act. Indeed, what’s most special about Changeling is the understated nature of all the performances and the overall quietude of the direction — it’s an exciting movie, but in a subtle way that gets us into the characters and their plights rather than dazzling us with action highlights.
And the issues it raises still resonate: the ways in which people are manipulated by authorities and the media, and the point mystery writer Abigail Padgett made to me when I interviewed her and she reflected on her experience as a Child Protective Services worker and how that impacted her fiction — that if there’s any possible way you can resolve your problems before turning to the system, you should, because systems have their own internal logic and the people within them will be focused far more on the health of the system than the well-being of the individuals who come to it asking for, and expecting, personal justice. Indeed, the entire film takes on a Kafkaesque air, as Christine finds herself in a situation in which every attempt she makes to assert herself and her own humanity is interpreted by the authorities as simply another indicator of her madness — to the point at which she is literally being offered a bribe by the authorities: sign a slip of paper acknowledging that the false Walter Collins is indeed her son, and she can leave immediately.
Changeling is a quite remarkable film that disappeared almost as soon as it was released, and was overshadowed by Eastwood’s other directorial credit from 2008, Gran Torino (probably because Eastwood was in Gran Torino and it was closer to his usual style both in subject and execution), but like Australia it was a box-office disappointment that deserved to be a blockbuster.