I had to open up the calculator to double-check my math, but I had done it right in my head: Clint Eastwood is 78 years old, which is absolutely astonishing, since he has done some of the finest work of his career in the last five or so years. Most folks in any trade retire at 65; Clint was just getting warmed up. Just as older actors like Robert Duvall and the late Paul Newman have done some of their most natural and unaffected work on the far side of the hill, Eastwood has effortlessly segued into a matter-of-fact, no-nonsense, old-fashioned picture-maker in the mold of John Ford, Howard Hawks, and his mentor Don Siegel.
His hot streak continues with Changeling, the true story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single mother in 1928 Los Angeles who returns home from work one afternoon to find that her little boy Walter has vanished into thin air. Several months later, the LAPD announces that they have found her son in Illinois, but when she lays eyes on him for the first time, she knows different: "That's not my son."
Her attempts to plead her case are ignored and even contradicted by J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), the police captain in charge of the investigation; the return of her son is a rare P.R. coup for a department surrounded by the scent of corruption and scandal, largely thanks to the crusading of activist reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich). He reaches out to Collins and encourages her to go public with her claims, a move which causes Jones to have her hauled off to a terrifying psychopathic hospital. He claims she is paranoid and delusional; his real aim is to make her disappear.
Universal made the admirable decision to keep the plot bottled to this point in its trailers and publicity materials, and I'll respect that; suffice it to say that Eastwood and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski will take us to some other, darker places before the day is done. We're led there by Detective Lester Ybarra, seemingly the one good cop on the entire force, who is played by Michael Kelly in a marvelously subtle but genuinely effective performance. He has one interrogation scene that contains about everything you need to know about great film acting--both from Kelly and a stunningly skilled young actor named Eddie Alderson.
There's not a bad performance in the film, really; Donovan is slimy but entirely believable, Malkovich is understated and terrific (it's nice to see him dial this far down, since so many of his recent performances have verged on self-parody, sometimes purposely and sometimes not), the always-welcome Amy Ryan does a couple of memorable scenes, and Jason Butler Harner paints one of the most skin-crawling portraits of pure evil in recent movie memory. And Jolie's work is just shattering. With so much crying and hysterics written into the screenplay, it must have been tempting to chew the scenery, but Jolie never reaches; she not only looks right but feels right. It's one of her finest performances.
If there is a genuine flaw to be found in Changeling (aside from minor squabbles, like the period costumes and sets needing to look a bit more lived-in), it is that it is more interested in plot than character, structurally speaking. It hits its emotional high point around the end of the second act (in a moment that is so raw, it's like a kick in the gut), but the resolutions and revolutions of the third act are just a few beats too long. Our hearts and minds are with Collins, and we're less interested in courtrooms and gallows.
But even in the trimmable third-act flab, Changeling is never less than fascinating. Eastwood's films are never flashy; he doesn't call attention to himself with elaborate camera moves or showy angles, considering them distractions from his first job, which is to pay service and respect to the story. But he's also not a simple filmmaker. Here he's made a film that moves with ease and grace from wrenching drama to dark thriller to a tale of period corruption worthy of the comparisons in the air to Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. The ability to work on so many levels, and shift gears with such skill, comes from years of practice, and Changeling is another high point from one of our finest directors. Highly Recommended.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.