Films about child kidnappings and murders are always hard to take, but the emotions involved are usually heightened whenever the story is based on true events. That’s the case with Changeling, from Academy Award-winning director Clint Eastwood. The movie recounts events that happened in connection with the disappearance of Walter Collins, nine-year-old Los Angeles boy who went missing back in 1928. I expected to have my heartstrings tugged at this one, but because some of the events were so absurd, I found myself shaking my head in anger instead.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers):Christine Collins (played by Angelina Jolie) is a single mom who works long hours at a telephone call center in order to support her son Walter (Gattlin Griffith). One Saturday when Christine and Walter were planning to go to the movies, Christine unexpectedly gets called into work to cover for a sick colleague. She reluctantly goes, leaving Walter home alone and asking neighbors to look in on the boy from time to time. After she returns a bit later than usual, she discovers to her horror that Walter is missing. She searches the neighborhood in vain, and then reports the disappearance to the police.
According to policy, the LAPD can’t act on the disappearance until the boy has been missing for 24 hours. Even after they do get on the case, they can’t uncover any solid leads. Months pass without word — until they get news of a boy in Dekalb, Il that matches Walter’s description. After interviewing the boy, who says that he’s Walter and is from Los Angeles, Capt. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) of the LAPD organizes a reunion with Christine. The police department has been under fire in the media for corruption, so Jones seizes on this opportunity to put the department in a good light by showcasing the story of reuniting a kidnapped boy with his mom. But Christine takes one look at “Walter” and immediately knows that it’s not her son.
Jones refuses to believe that Christine is telling the truth, saying the boy has been through a lot and could have changed during the five months he was gone. He urges Christine to take the boy home and “try him out” for a few weeks, which she inexplicably agrees to do. Further differences in height and dental records confirm that the boy is not really Walter, but when Christine tries to press the issue with Capt. Jones, he has her thrown into a mental institution.
The rest of the film then deals with how the case played out from there, with a radio preacher named Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) getting involved on Christine’s behalf and with the revelation that a serial killer from Riverside had been targeting boys in the area. An eyewitness places Walter at the killer’s farm, but there’s a chance the boy might have somehow escaped. Since Walter’s remains were never positively identified, Christine held out hope for the rest of her life that Walter would eventually come home.
My Reaction: If Changeling hadn’t been based on true events, I would have immediately dismissed this movie as highly improbable and pushing the bounds of believability. First of all, it struck me as completely ludicrous that officials would refuse to believe a mother saying that a certain kid wasn’t her son. I know that they didn’t have DNA testing back then, but medical records and testimony from others should have served as sufficient evidence even if the cops didn’t want to give the mom the benefit of the doubt. Moreover, it was totally creepy for the other kid to claim to be Walter, and I didn’t like how the film took so long to explain that boy’s motives. None of it made sense as it was unfolding on the screen, and that just took me out of the film altogether.
I thought the serial killer angle was much more interesting than Walter’s disappearance, so I wish the filmmakers had chosen to focus on that a bit more. I know it wouldn’t be possible for them to do that without a great deal of speculation about what might have happened, but still… it’s not as though every other event in the film was documented exactly as it occurred.
The performances in Changeling were pretty good all the way around. I particularly liked the young actor who played the serial killer’s unwilling assistant. Eddie Alderson was terrific, and certainly has a bright future in Hollywood if this role gives us any indication of his skill level. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get a Supporting Actor nomination… he was that good.
Overall, Changeling was a decent film, but wasn’t quite what I expected it to be. It felt a bit too disjointed with the first half focusing on Walter’s disappearance and the imposter and the second focusing on the serial killer, which served to lessen the impact of both storylines. As a result, I give this film 3 stars out of 5.