Monday, December 1, 2008

Review: "Changeling" (2008)


* * *

D: Clint Eastwood
W: J. Michael Straczynski
S: Angelina Jolie; John Malkovich

Critics seemed decidedly split on Eastwood's latest.  Too bad I'm split with them.  At 141 minutes, you would think "Changeling" would have the ability to deftly develop its vast plotting, but the screenplay feels structurally weak.  I wouldn't mind it so much (see also my Australia review) if the film didn't pound so often for so much emotion.

I'll revise my opening statement: "Changeling" didn't hit me the way I wanted it to emotionally, as I think its gut shots feel too contrived.  The writer, even though he works off a true story (the film even avoids "based on..."), has problems switching acts without weird standstills.  That's okay, because Eastwood's style is as slick and nonexistent as his best recent work.  The editing is sublime and recalls a lot of the styles he employed in "Mystic River" to link mental conditions and interpersonal conflicts in the same sequence.  The cinematography, with its long shadows, gold and blue tints, is so evocative of neo-noir and utterly sublime.  I'll throw in another Australia reference here because it's the last movie I saw besides this: where Australia is primarily concerned with the fabrication and surface of the image, polishing it past the point of saturation, Changeling goes back in the opposite direction and lets the images speak for the tragedy underlying it.

In terms of filmmaking economy, Eastwood still stuns.  He continues to make his case as one of the last great narrative filmmakers.  I credit a lot of this to Angelina Jolie, whose grief spreads like wildfire.  She keeps Christine Collins a closeted, shy, devastated mother for most of the film, but there are a few key sequences where this quiet assuredness builds into a tempest.

I was actually surprised at how terribly sad this film became.  The trailer (as so many have been this year) was completely misleading, as the missing child stuff becomes more of a MacGuffin for the film's main exploration of a corrupt LA power infrastructure.  Naturally, the kid conflict provides the film its most emotional resonance, but the directions it goes are almost unfathomable and stomach-churning.  Only in the mental asylum scenes did I feel like the script and Eastwood were reaching, doing their best to try and shove emotion down our throat, for the rest of the film is pretty reserved.  Eastwood scores the film again, and comes up with a very pretty piano composition.

Stylistically more than substantively, "Changeling" is a triumph.  That it feels like it WANTS to be the other way is the only reason I'm a bit reserved in my praise.  And yet, watching it, I've come to a pretty awestriking conclusion: we keep praising Eastwood and congratulating him every time he turns out another capably made film, but do we REALIZE how dark these films are?  Look at how hopeless Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, and Changeling end up.  Sure, they may be tearjerkers, but Eastwood is dealing with GRIEF and DEATH and the loss of everything GOOD and WHOLESOME.  His construction of 1930s LA is terrifying, like a jungle of predators gone mad with power.  This may be the first time in several films he seems concerned with what women think and feel.  Jolie, who has been so vocal about her feelings as a parent, seems perfect for this role, and her recent motherhood gives her an occasionally sublime edge for this part that would be sheepish or too overdrawn from many others.

I have to applaud Clint for this one, even though part of me still thinks it contrived and over the top in parts.  It doesn't meet his bar, but you would be hard-pressed to find a filmmaker so willing to delve so deep into our emotional condition and then protract it back into a societal commentary.

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