Clint Eastwood's "Changeling" is drawn from the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders of the late 1920s, a case that scandalized Los Angeles and gained national attention. Set in 1928, the movie follows Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single working mom who comes home one day to find her nine-year-old boy, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), missing without trace. Over the next several months, she desperately searches for him, with little cooperation from the local police. After five months pass, the police inform her that Walter has been found and arrange a public reunion at the train station. Her initial relief is shattered, however, when she sees the boy and firmly concludes that he is not her son.
Her claim is refuted by Captain J. J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), who assures her that the ordeal has altered her son's appearance and that the time away from him has affected her perception. He persuades her to take the boy home for a few days and get used to him. She agrees, but she only becomes more convinced that he is not Walter. Letters from Walter's dentist and school teacher attest to Christine's claim, and Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), a local minister who broadcasts his sermons over the radio and regularly condemns the incompetence of the Los Angeles Police Department, comes to her aid. But her persistence only angers Captain Jones, who eventually has her committed to a women's asylum for what he deems unstable behavior, where she is subjected to all manner of humiliating and abusive treatment.
The mystery at the heart of the film serves as an immediate hook, and the fact that it is based on a true story makes it all the more compelling. Interestingly, Clint Eastwood seems less focused on the truth of the matter (details of the story were significantly altered for the movie) than on the themes that arise from it: legal and political corruption, the disunity between the public and its protectors, and most importantly, societal injustice toward women. But Eastwood does not approach these ideas in the matter-of-fact realism of films like David Fincher's "Zodiac" (2007). Instead, he explores them through the trappings of an old-fashioned women's melodrama, stripping his characters of nuance and turning them more into broad representatives of extreme good and evil.
From his use of a classic 1930s Universal logo to open the film, it is clear that Eastwood is not trying to evoke a sense of period authenticity so much as channel the spirit of the movies from that period. From there, the opening shot begins in black and white and slowly dissolves into a stylized color scheme, similar to that of the three-strip Technicolor process of the time. The first few scenes of development between Jolie and her son are rhythmic and mannered, much like 1920s melodramas, and Jolie especially seems to be acutely aware that she is performing. Her gestures, delivery, and posture are marked by a self-consciousness that under normal circumstances would be irritating, but here it recalls the theatrical acting of the silent film era. With her large, expressive eyes, Jolie herself looks as though she could have been a silent screen actress.
By conjuring up the movie memories of the late 1920s and early 1930s, most overtly in a scene toward the end in which Christine bets that "It Happened One Night" will win the 1934 Best Picture Oscar, Eastwood taps into the era's depictions of alluring but strong-minded women. Jolie, in full flapper garb and glamour makeup, recalls Louise Brooks and Joan Crawford at the height of their youthful femininity and beauty, outwardly soft but as driven and determined as their male co-stars. The film, then, becomes more of an examination of Hollywood's own treatment of their female characters (how fortuitous that the true story took place in Los Angeles) and the misogynistic contrivances movie heroines have consistently been put through for audience entertainment.
About midway through the film, a subplot is introduced with a police detective (Michael Kelly) uncovering a grisly string of child murders that may or may not have involved Walter. These scenes are filmed in a decidedly less melodramatic fashion, approaching outright horror as more details are revealed, but still overtly cinematic in their lighting and staging. While intriguing in their own right, they are ultimately distracting from Christine's main plotline and break up the otherwise methodically devised melodramatic structure.
Still, in spite of its occasional wanderings (and an overlong running time), "Changeling" works on the base level of a classical women's weepie, which explains its great box office success. The heroine is sympathetic, the villains are despicable, and we root for the individual's triumph over the corrupt system. On a deeper level, however, Eastwood and Jolie seem to be using the very conventions of the melodrama to comment on the themes raised by the horrifying true-life story that inspired the film. Christine Collins is not just the subject of this film; she becomes a surrogate, a changeling in herself, for the various movie heroines before her who have suffered countless indignities at the will of the historically male-centric Hollywood industry.
The 1080p high definition transfer of "Changeling" on Universal Home Video's Blu-Ray release is beautiful to behold, even when the onscreen content is not. Presented in its original 2.40:1 widescreen aspect ratio, the film looks superb, with sharp detail and great depth. The film's intentionally desaturated color palette is rendered very nicely, with colors appearing rich but not overly vibrant. Jolie's prominent red lipstick pops out in stark contrast to her pale skin throughout, and black levels are rich and deep. Very fine grain is visible at times, giving the picture a good, film-like appearance. Overall, this is an excellent transfer that does the stylish film justice.
Audio is delivered in a DTS 5.1 Master Lossless track that is also of excellent quality. Vocals are strong, clear, and frequently powerful during the more emotionally driven scenes. In some brief violent scenes, gunshots blast loudly and with full force. Surround is utilized well to create a sense of ambience, particularly in the crowd scenes toward the end. "Changeling" is not a noisy film in general, but this track is certainly as good as it gets.
Bonus features are surprisingly scarce, although there are some small goodies, including two featurettes in high definition. The first is the misleadingly titled "Partners in Crime: Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie" (14 min.). This featurette does not focus on Eastwood and Jolie's relationship, but is instead a general behind-the-scenes look at the film, boasting interviews with the cast and crew. The second feature is "The Common Thread: Angelina Jolie Becomes Christine Collins" (5 min.). This piece focuses on Jolie's performance and her thoughts on the character. While rather short and lacking in depth, these featurettes do provide a fairly interesting glimpse at the making of the film.
Universal also provides a "U-Control" feature, which allows you to view Picture-in-Picture interviews with the cast and filmmakers, archival photos and documents from the true-life case, and footage of contemporary Los Angeles to compare with the period depictions in the movie. Only one feature may be applied at a time, but there is some interesting stuff here. It is rather slim, however.
The disc is also BD-Live enabled and offers an option to save clips from the film and send them to friends online.
"Changeling" is a fascinating movie that is engrossing for the masses and thought-provoking for those who wish to dig a little deeper. Not without its missteps, the film is nonetheless intriguing and well made. Universal's high-definition presentation is excellent, and although the special features are somewhat disappointing, this disc is recommended.