The film, based on Southern California's infamous Wineville chicken coop murders of the late 1920s, is a good, solid addition to the 78-year-old Eastwood's directorial career. From a forlorn young boy's doom-tinged farewell to his mother near the beginning, to the precise moment (on the "Silent Night" lyric "mother and child") a heinous predator dies on the scaffold near the end, Eastwood, working from a script by J. Michael Straczynski, tells a painful true story neatly and well, with one foot in rousing Hollywood melodrama and the other in a story that resists tidy resolution.
In 1928, Walter Collins, 9, disappeared from the Los Angeles-area home he shared with his mother, Christine. Five months later, another boy claiming to be the son of Christine Collins was reunited with his doubting mother in a highly public way by the Los Angeles Police Department. Collins said bunk: The boy is someone else's.
The police, ruled with murderous impunity by Chief James E. "Two Guns" Davis, was not interested in any more bad publicity and summarily tossed Collins in the psychiatric ward of the county hospital under a Code 12 violation. Feminine hysteria was the crime, in so many words. Only the newfound boy's admission of guilt freed her (it plays out somewhat differently in the film). The facts are cloudy, but Walter Collins' abductor appears to have been Gordon Northcott, whose Riverside County ranch held the remains of various missing persons.
It's grim stuff, and "Changeling" elides the worst of it, perhaps to give the audience a break (what's left out of the script relates to sexual molestation, as well as the involvement of Northcott's mother), perhaps to avoid comparisons with Eastwood's "Mystic River." The script emphasizes the triumph of one woman's campaign against the law-enforcement officials who shut her away in hopes of shutting her up. Jolie, rail-thin, plays Collins as a feral crusader for justice. In a largely expository role, John Malkovich portrays Rev. Gustav Briegleb, Collins' partner in exposing the venality of the local police.
Jolie brings out the best in the script and transcends its limitations. She's spectacularly effective in the most intense blowouts—there's an Oscar-clip dilly with Jolie and Jason Butler Harner, who plays Northcott—but Jolie really shines in the calm before the storm, the scenes (and there are many) when one patronizing male authority figure after another belittles her at their peril.
"Changeling" comes to dramatic life most vividly in the hushed scenes, notably the ones dominated by Michael Kelly's Detective Lester Ybarra. He's one of the few characters who undergo a marked change, starting out as just another LAPD flatfoot, slowly pulled into the vortex of evil represented by Northcott. Kelly's long interrogation scene with a runaway (Eddie Alderson) who has survived his waking nightmare is a high point of dramatic purpose. You almost wish Eastwood hadn't felt the need to intercut it with Gothic horror flashbacks.
I found "Changeling" consistently involving, though a touch deliberate (it runs 141 minutes) and psychologically thin. Where it lands on your Eastwood list depends on how highly you regard him as a craftsman. For my money, Eastwood's most interesting recent work lies with "Letters From Iwo Jima," most of "Unforgiven" and "The Bridges of Madison County" and parts of "A Perfect World." If you're an ardent admirer of "Million Dollar Baby," we'll have to agree to disagree. In "Changeling," certain atmospheric details feel less than judicious, and unlike some of my colleagues, I don't pin the problems on the quality of the production design. Rather, it's cinematographer Tom Stern's unusually blunt and flat lighting (heavy on the cold, milky slashes of white cutting up dark interior spaces) and Eastwood's direction that feel a little heavyhanded. And Eastwood's musical score, more '40s-sounding than '20s or early '30s, hinges on a theme that shamelessly repurposes the first five notes of "I Wish You Love."
Does any of this matter to the average filmgoer who just wants to know whether this combination of serial-killer saga and triumph of the human spirit is any damn good? No, and yes. "Changeling" fundamentally works; it holds you. But these issues of texture and detail matter too, and they hold clues as to why Eastwood's latest is a good, solid achievement rather than a great, grieving one.