Clint Eastwood ought to be a more memorable and significant filmmaker than he is. Throughout his prolific career — he's made at least seven films per decade since the 1970s — he's told plenty of interesting stories about crime, dishonor, and corruption, history, combat, and heroism. He's a solid if unspectacular craftsman who seldom releases movies without merit. But with the exception of four Westerns (most recently 1992's Unforgiven), two unusual biopics (1988's White Hunter, Black Heart and 1989's Bird), and 1993's heartbreaking A Perfect World, Eastwood's films are curiously detached and curmudgeonly, with few memorable emotional or stylistic high points. When this strained seriousness is overindulged, it results in negligible work like Changeling, Eastwood's fictionalized retelling of an actual 1920s Los Angeles missing-child case.
An emaciated and frightened Angelina Jolie stars as Christine Collins, a telephone-company supervisor whose young son is abducted one day while she's at work. Five months later, the LAPD discovers her son and returns him to her, but she immediately suspects that he's not her child — for one thing, this new boy is three inches shorter. The LAPD, though, is unwilling either to accommodate Collins or renege on its own story, so she begins a tentative struggle with the cops that eventually wins her an extended stay in a Los Angeles psychopathic ward — where, it turns out, she's not the only woman who's fought the law unsuccessfully. While she attempts to free herself, an ominous new case with terrible implications further undermines the police department's credibility.
With Changeling, Eastwood is toiling in the shadow of numerous Southern California crime pictures, so he manufactures a mannered, opaque neo-noir world of light and dark that smudges the allusions to superior works like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. Unfortunately, his lighting scheme doesn't enhance character or illuminate any larger social anxieties. His actors struggle to define themselves against this creeping blackness as best they can, but the sparse natural lighting and the bisecting shadow schemes swallow up everyone from concerned minister Gustav Briegleb (a restrained John Malkovich) to concerned detective Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly).
Yet there's a hint of what such cool-eyed professionalism can accomplish in two consecutive scenes occurring halfway through the film. In the first scene, Collins tries to avoid the Catch-22 of life in the psych ward: If she's hysterical and outraged by her wrongful incarceration, she's clearly mentally unstable, but if she's calm and collected, she's emotionally withdrawn. During her informal evaluation scene with the menacing head doctor, each reaction shot inches closer and closer until the scene climaxes with a huge close-up of Collins' shaken, tear-stained face.
The second scene is another two-actor affair between Detective Ybarra and a young kid about to be deported. The scene between Ibarra and the kid is a ghoulish inversion of the scene between Collins and the doctor, as the kid tries to convince the detective that his gruesome testimony is true. How these two simple, sharp, chilling scenes wormed their way into a film as diffuse and unsatisfying as this one, though, is anyone's guess.