The one true horror film opening this weekend is Clint Eastwood’s Changeling. While the movie contains a deranged serial killer, it is not his acts that the film dwells on. Instead, the real avenues of real horror in the film are twofold. The first is the gut-wrenching, primal fear felt by a mother searching for her missing child. The second is the more intellectual kind, as we watch how this woman is threatened and abused by those with whom we as society have entrusted authority and our safety.
Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) is a single mother in 1928 Los Angeles. One evening, after working an extra weekend shift as a supervisor at the telephone company, she comes home to find that her son Walter is missing. The police launch a search and after five months a boy matching Walter’s description is found in DeKalb, Illinois and promptly put on a train west. However, the boy that steps off the train is not her son.
Already besieged with a tidal wave of bad publicity, the LA police department pressures Collins into taking the boy in. When she asks them to continue the search for her son, they refuse, saying that the boy they returned to her is her son. Despite dental records and the testimony of teachers and classmates who don’t recognize the boy, the police continue to refuse to recognize their mistake. When she starts to become a little too public with her allegations, police Captain J. J. Jones, played to slimy perfection by Jeffrey Donovan, has her committed to a psychiatric hospital. Fortunately, Collins has an ally in the form of a minister (John Malkovich), who uses the burgeoning medium of radio to crusade against the corruption in the city’s police department.
A former journalist turned television writer and producer, screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski methodically takes us through Christine Collins’ story point by point, neatly and efficiently. (Straczynski’s script circulated with newspaper accounts and city hall records documenting the outrages to which Collins was subjected to remind readers that her story is true.) Such storytelling straightforwardness is backed up by Clint Eastwood’s low key direction. Even the mid-film revelation that Walter’s disappearance might be connected to be a much darker and sinister crime is handled in such a way that the development never feels like it is coming out from left field. While Jolie may play some early scenes for a bit more melodrama than called for, the film does a good job at slowly raising one’s sense of shock and outrage at how Collins’ is treated by the Los Angeles police and City Hall.
Part of the reason that Collins is treated this way is her status as a woman in the 1920s. Although they had been given the right to vote in 1920, women were still very much considered second-class citizens. The police and city officials expect Collins to quietly accept what they tell her because, after all, they are men and she is just a member of the weaker sex. Her incarceration in a mental hospital is all the more frightening when she discovers that many of the other women in the ward have also been guilty of being a potential embarrassment to the police force.
Special note needs to be made of Jason Butler Harner’s mesmerizing performance as Northcott, the perpetrator of the Wineville Chicken Coop murders. He captivates the screen in his every scene, fascinating with his ability to naturalistically slide back and forth between a calm, rational young man and a wide-eyed, maniacal killer without ever appearing cartoony or two-note.