I can’t trace the roots of all my phobias. There are too many of them. I’d need to get more proficient with Excel for one thing. This week’s entry, 2008’s Changeling (not to be confused for previous entry The Changeling), tripped a lingering fear whose true source has been lost to the mists of memory. I have no reason to be worried about getting thrown into an old-timey mental institution and then forced to prove my own sanity, knowing full well the catch-22 involved there, yet there it is. Watching Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) getting thrown into the LA County Psych Ward for being able to correctly determine that a child was not hers, was one of the most disturbing things I have seen in a while. It was all the more frightening because the story was true.
In all great crime movies about Los Angeles, the filmmakers get a very important point: we never had a mafia around here. Oh, we’ve had a few gangs, some Nostras, both Cosa and Kosher, but not like the other great cities of this country. No, out here, organized crime has always been the purview of the cops. The Shield, L.A. Confidential, these works get it, and both are based at least partly on reality. Los Angeles has always been a city whose gangsters got pensions and carried badges. Changeling takes place primarily between 1928-30, when Police Chief Davis unleashed his infamous “gun squad” (it was a more honest time then — remember, the Secretary of Defense used to be called the Secretary of War), ostensibly to target rum smugglers, but actually more concerned with hobos and leftists. The department was staffed with thugs and incompetents, and it’s inevitable that things would slip through the cracks. The problems occur when they try to cover for their mistakes.
Christine Collins was a single mother raising her son Walter (this was back when Walters were still young) in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Lincoln Heights — a few miles from where I live today. One day while she’s at work, Walter vanishes. Several months later, the police claim to have located the boy in DeKalb, Illinois with a drifter, but when they return Walter to Christine, she notes some differences. This new boy is circumcised, he’s several inches shorter, and it’s obviously not fucking Walter, and Christine knows her own son. Bullied into accepting him “on a trial basis” by LAPD Captain JJ Jones (Jeffrey Donovan, doing a variation on the Irish accent he’d bust out on Burn Notice every now and then), brittle Christine soon regrets the decision. Jones is a brick wall, the LAPD is in dire straits with the public, they need a “win.” Jones begins by making sexist insinuations about Christine “dodging responsibility” and “missing her freedom” before escalating into the aforementioned institutionalizing. His slimy language calls to mind online harassment and slut-shaming, finally getting the attention it deserves and showing that while this is the past, some of the prejudices are all too present.
He just throws her into the psych ward. There’s absolutely zero oversight. While inside, Christine gets the stories of some others also victimized by the LAPD’s iron fist. Amy Ryan plays a prostitute who tried to complain about a violent john… who turned out to be a cop, so in she goes. Another woman was relentlessly abused by her cop husband, and as soon as she tried to escape, it was off to the psych ward. In the most heartbreaking (and, sadly still relevant) monologue, Ryan’s character, layering on the tragic sarcasm, points out that they’re women — they’re supposed to be weak and emotional, so when they break it’s expected.
The film then takes a fascinating and odd detour. While Christine is being tortured in a mental institution for the crime of wanting the cops to actually look for her kid, the narrative shifts. It’s not immediately obvious why, either, just that Detective Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly), one of Jones’s men in the juvenile division, is investigating a Canadian kid staying here illegally. And yes, this is the first and last time anyone in LA has ever been concerned about Canadian illegals. Ybarra abruptly finds himself in a noir film when this boy, who was staying with uncle, admits to helping this uncle murder up to twenty boys. The kid also identifies Walter Collins as one of the boys that was killed.
Fortunately, Christine had already attracted the attention of oddly intimidating preacher and losing Scrabble hand Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who is able to spring her from the clink. Briegleb’s mission in life was to expose the LAPD for its violence, incompetence, and corruption, and has glommed onto Christine’s story as an excellent way to do just that. As one of the radio preachers that used to be a thing (fun was not invented until 1942), he uses his electric pulpit to bring attention to the crimes of the LAPD. Christine and Briegleb, with the assistance of crusading lawyer SS Hahn, sue the cops for what they did.
It feels odd to be calling a movie directed by Clint Eastwood, and starring Angelina Jolie, and John Malkovich underrated and deserving of attention, but since its release, Changeling has dropped out of the consciousness of the movie going public. That’s a shame, because it really is very good. Eastwood is a master at making good to great films from mediocre scripts, but here he has a legitimately great story written by J. Michael Straczynski (best known for Babylon 5), who did a truly insane amount of research to get it right. Straczynski’s great skill as a writer has always been in kissing his characters’ asses, and while this might sound like an insult, it’s really not. To do it right, the character has to have legitimately been awesome or the praise is unwarranted, and comes off as shilling. In this case, Christine has just spent a decent chunk of time in the psych ward, thinking that she’s doomed to stay in there forever, and Briegleb frees her, then introduces her to the lawyer. “We can’t afford him… so he’s doing this pro bono.” And the lawyer, with just the right gravitas, says, “It would be my honor. I have never seen anyone fight so long and hard in what is clearly the cause of justice.” It’s all the more warranted, because the film had just shown her refusing to back down in the face of shock treatment, even though she had no idea that her rescue was just around the corner. Straczynski shows us Christine’s steel, and it’s appropriate to praise her.
I’m not a Jolie fan as a rule, but she great here. Her look is perfect for the era, but she never relies on it. She’s forced to run the gamut, from great mom in the beginning, to wracked with fear, to desperation, to despair, to turning into an implacable wall of justice. She is continually faced with her status as a second-class citizen — what with being a woman and all — though by the end when her son’s probable killer attempts to use that against her, she slaps him with such blistering contempt it’s a wonder he didn’t die then and there. Kelly, as the other lead, is just as good but far less showy, and it’s a shame this wasn’t two movies, one about Christine, and one about him. Sort of a noir version of Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima.
Changeling is a fascinating horror film, effortlessly shifting between the different kinds of
fear. First it’s the adult fear of losing a child, then it moves into the existential dread of being sane but unable to prove it, before moving into a serial killer story of astonishing evil. It’s a top notch team of director, writer, and actors putting together an epic story of corruption with a vulnerable human face.