Clint Eastwood opens his 1920s-'30s set film Changeling with a period logo of its studio—here, Universal, with its silvery, Deco-esque depiction of a small plane circling the globe. The slight but noteworthy irony here is that this picture is nothing like a Universal production of that era—it is instead, very much like a Warner Brothers production of that era and beyond. (Eastwood just recently stopped hanging his producing hat at Warner's, alas.)
For Changeling rings the muckracking bells of the likes of I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, and the devoted-mother high notes of Stella Dallas. Its old-fashionedness, or I should say respect for verities, goes hand-in-hand with a particularly Eastwood-esque directness. The result is not as perfect a film as Eastwood has made, but it's damn strong, both as a story and an exploration of the parent-child bond...and, as it happens, as a polemic. Because despite the fact that it deals with the corruption and venality of a past era, Changeling is at times a very angry picture; Eastwood's angriest, I think, since Unforgiven.
Changeling is based on the trus story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single mom in Los Angeles whose young son is abducted while she's away at work. Five months later, Police Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) stages a press event to celebrate the discovery and return of the boy. Only Collins insists—and the audience knows—that the boy she meets at the train station is not her son. Collins insists on this fact, and for her trouble winds up locked up in the psycho ward of a mental hospital (shades of The Snake Pit, admitedly not a Warner picture, but you can't have everything) that's largely just a disguised repository for any woman who pisses off the cops. Intercut with her jaw-dropping travails is the discovery by an initially sceptical good cop (Michael Kelly) of a child-murdering psycho who operated on a remote ranch and may well have killed Collins' real son. After a crusading preacher (John Malkovich) who's on a campaign against police corruption gets Collins sprung from the asylum, the film's storylines converge more closely, as Collins seeks justice for herself and tries to discern her beloved son's true fate.
Jolie's performance as Collins is one of her best in years; no doubt channelling some fierce maternal instinct but at the same time dialing things down quite a bit, she very nearly transcends her somewhat otherworldly physical appearance and embodies a classic heroine. As nemesis Jones, Donovan shows his teeth a little too fiercely; as a friend observed, people don't actually get up in the morning relishing the idea of how evil they're going to be, the way this guy does. Far more evocative of heinous soul-crushing bureaucracy at its most rotted is Denis O'Hare's slimy asylum head. Amy Ryan is her usual goods-delivering self as an inmate who hips Collins to the loony bin's secret purpose, and her exchanges with Jolie flesh out the film's powerful feminist sub-theme. I still haven't quite processed Jason Butler Harner's work as the genuinely deranged child-killer, but his final confrontations with Jolie do add up.
For once, Eastwood's musical score is a little inapt—the modal format and the instrumentation seem kind of anachronistic, and the music's not as sparely used as it's been in other recent works of his. But hell. The directorial mastery here culminates in a genuinely wrenching coda set in a police station, which brought real unashamed tears to my eyes.
Speaking of films working on me....most of my U.S. colleagues here hated James Gray's new film even more than they did last year's booed-right-here We Own The Night, which I wasn't too crazy about myself. But I gotta give it up—as earnest and awkward as this loose rethink of Dostoevsky's "White Nights" can get, it frequently moved me. Perhaps it's something to do with my own past as a fall-hard guy for troubled, difficult women. Then again, a lot of my male colleagues not giving this movie any love have similar skeletons in their closet.
Or maybe it's just that one man's inclination to take a movie at its word is another man's credulousness. I was ready and willing to buy Joaquin Phoenix as Leonard, the troubled scion of Brighton Beach Russian Jews about to merge their dry cleaning business with a family of Cohens. Ready and willing to buy Vinessa Shaw as Sandra, the daughter of said Cohens. Ready and willing to buy Gwyneth Paltrow as Michelle, a shicksa goddess so thoroughly shicksa that she doesn't know what a dreidel looks like. Ready and willing to buy the idea that a prominent married lawyer, in today's Gawkerized metropolis, could take his mistress out to the opera on a regular basis and never get ratted on.
So yes, implausibilities abound, but maybe they're deliberate—they certainly are in the film's evocation of Manhattan as a sort of fairyland. Nevertheless, Phoenix works very hard to imbue Leonard with goofy, half-in, half-out-of-it charm and confusion and loneliness; Paltrow's Michelle, the kept woman who thoughtlessly injects herself into Leonard's life, is similarly complex, and Shaw's Sandra is warm, quietly sympathetic. And throughout, the picture hits little poetic notes that resonate with truly on the conditions of longing and loss; a shot of Paltrow approaching Phoenix from a shadowed alley way; the look that Leonard's mother (Isabella Rossellini) gives her son as she bids him a farewell he didn't know she was expecting; the sight of a leather glove almost getting drawn out to sea by the Coney Island tide. Turning away from the crime-steeped mileus of his previous features, Gray aims for a kind of deliberately ache-filled romanticism that no other filmmaker I can think of is particularly interested in today. Good for him, says I.