Clint Eastwood is in the midst of a golden age. After winning a second Best Picture Oscar with his 2004 masterpiece, “Million Dollar Baby,” he shot an exhaustive, exhilarating two-film telling of the battle for Iwo Jima told from both the American and Japanese sides. At almost 80 years old, he hasn’t run out of work that inspires him.
“Changeling,” bears remembering that Eastwood is not only not afraid to go where other directors fear to look, but that death and darkness exert a strong pull on him as an artist. There are scenes here, involving children, that would be equally at home in a straight-up horror film. If you are vulnerable to this, watching can make you shrink in your seat as the movie marches over the top of you, inexorable.
“Changeling,” we are told, is a “true story”. Maybe. Some of the mile markers are certain, many details are conjecture, and it all plays like melodrama. One of the pleasures of good melodrama – and there are many – is seeing actors going further than they probably should; and here, Eastwood, who has a great sensitivity to and respect for them, gets plenty of mileage out of them.
A host of vivid character actors peoples the crooked LAPD of 1928, portrayed as worse than the criminals; a mental hospital where women, committed for no reason other than they have a spine, a big mouth, and annoyed a cop, are medicated and electro-shocked into submission; a serial killer who you can’t cleanse from your memory; and even John Malkovich in a weirdly subdued performance as a preacher who uses his radio show to combat corruption.
But this is Angelina Jolie’s movie, another showcase for her. She follows her grief-soaked role as the wife of doomed journalist Daniel Pearl in “A Mighty Heart” with nearly the same trip, here as Christine Collins, fighting for the life of her missing son. She is in nearly every scene, usually in close-up, usually in intense pain.
Jolie can act; but so can a lot of people, many of whom could have stood in for her. Not so in her last film, “Wanted,” which could have been played by no other actress on earth. Jolie has the lips of her father, the shoulders of a wooden coat hanger, and the back of a great cat. Every molecule of her tattoo-scrawled body vibrates with sex and danger. It would be ironic indeed if a movie about the repression of women generated a review in which I suggested that Jolie should only take roles in which she can be sexy. I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is that in a movie that’s mostly close-ups, denied her physicality, she is acting with at least one hand tied behind her back.
Christine is a gentle, quiet woman, seemingly fragile (her long, delicate hands depend from her wrists, her large eyes peer upwards up from under the brim of a hat), a single mother, no stranger to loneliness and low expectations. Her seven-year-old son Walter is her life. No one will listen to Christine when she protests that the boy the LAPD has returned to her (after five months missing) is not Walter. This, even though he is three inches shorter, is circumcised, doesn’t remember the name of his teacher and his dentist is willing to testify that the boy has different teeth. Christine is silenced by the tyranny of men who repress women as “intuitive” and “emotional” – code for “irrational” and “hysterical”.
There is no doubt how Eastwood feels about the repression of women. It’s part of the attraction of aging directors that they no longer have anything to prove, and their fearlessness lets them speak their mind with an eye-popping directness. Eastwood hates abuse of power above all things, where the weak are out of sight, at the mercy of the cruel. And he as unsentimental about capital punishment as he was about assisted suicide in “Million Dollar Baby”; though he doesn’t pretty either of them up, he believes that sometimes, death is the right choice. It’s his sensibility: a compassionate brutalist.