The truth is a tricky construct. Words are uttered and, depending on who says them, they are afforded a certain level of belief. Sometimes the truth is so entirely outlandish that believing it is a struggle. And sometimes that struggle is worth it because the truth has the potential to enlighten and call for change. The truth in a movie is almost inherently a falsehood. The intention of telling the truth may be genuine but film requires reconstruction and subjectivity in order for its message to be told. So when Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial effort, “Changeling”, announces at its very start that what we are about to bear witness to is a true story, a certain weight is lent while a certain caution is exercised. The truth here is that a boy by the name of Walter Collins was abducted in 1928 and the boy that was returned to his mother, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), five months later was not her son, but rather a boy claiming to be her son. The thought that no one believed her truthful claims is a wide stretch to begin with and Eastwood, despite a valiant effort, did not ultimately convince me that any of this actually happened.
Of course, to some extent, much of the story did happen. In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Los Angeles played home to an atrocious set of serial murders known then as the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. Walter Collins was said to be a victim of these horrible crimes, in which a man by the name of Gordon Northcott (played in the film by Jason Butler Harner), would lure young boys back to his run down ranch, lock them up in chicken coops and torture them before ultimately killing them like helpless animals and burying their bodies in his backyard. At the same time, a boy by the name of Arthur Hutchens Jr. claimed to be the missing Collins boy in order to get a free ride from Iowa to California. When Christine Collins told the police that this was not her son, they tried to convince her that she was mistaken and confused. She pushed and was eventually incarcerated in the psychiatric ward of the L.A. county hospital for her supposed delusions. She was released ten days later when Hutchens finally admitted he was not Walter Collins.
The facts are what they are but yet somehow, when Eastwood tells the story, it seems ridiculous and “Changeling” becomes a disappointing experience because you want for it to be better than it is. Cinematographer Tom Stern shoots Patrick M. Sullivan Jr.’s delicate and detailed art direction with a soft sensitivity that births an encompassing sense of nostalgia for a time I never knew. And it always surprises me just how breathtaking Jolie is. As the single mother at the center of this controversy, she is composed and determined one moment and fragile and frightened the next. Sometimes, she is all of these things and more at the same time. Unfortunately for Jolie, she seems to keep picking prestige projects where she outshines the material itself. J. Michael Straczynski’s script is overly facile as it chalks up all of Collins’ difficulties to her being a woman, that ever emotional creature that cannot possibly function with reason. And Eastwood has all of her male aggressors adopt that same mentality. So when a doctor tells Christine Collins that of course it is possible that her boy shrunk three inches after this ordeal and that she cannot see this because she has no objectivity, we chuckle at how ludicrous this is instead of recoil at the horror.
Review by Joseph Bélanger