I liked that Changeling has a sharp sense of time and place. I didn’t like that it didn’t have a sense of focus or pacing. I think where it unravels is when it tries to do too much; there are plenty of aspects to it that I found admiral but maybe there are just too many aspects.

The root of the story is the disappearance of Christine Collins’s (Angelina Jolie) son, Walter, in 1928 Los Angeles. Months later the LA police return to her a boy that she insists is not actually her son. She then campaigns to force the police to stop dragging their heels and look for her real son while the police fight her back viciously. It’s certainly an emotional story with Christine trying to keep it together while dealing with the loss of her son and seeking justice. I liked Jolie’s performance, which is generally not showy. Christine is a fairly grounded and very strong woman and even in dramatic moments Jolie plays her with some restraint. Of course there are scenes involving emotional outbursts and those mostly felt earned and genuine.

But the film doesn’t stay focused on Christine’s story. Deep into the runtime it takes an abrupt and dark shift to a farm east of the city. Jolie is offscreen for significant periods of time as the investigation into the farm unfolds. I’ll keep it vague until after the jump to avoid spoilers, but this subplot feels like part of a different film. It is still often effective taken on its own, but it’s too involved and developed of a subplot for a film that should really be focused on Christine Collins.

Then the film begins to feel like it’s spiraling out of control. It goes on for way too long, far past what felt like its natural climax. It’s frustrating because the film feels so promising for so long and each of the scenes and story elements usually works on its own, just to discover as the film unfolds that many are wasted.

From an Oscars standpoint, Jolie will likely get a Best Actress nod and it’ll be well-deserved. As I mentioned at the beginning, despite Changeling‘s thematic and story missteps, to its credit it creates a wholly enveloping and consistently interesting environment. Even during the times I felt the story slipping away from me I found something of interest in the setting. A Costume nomination could certainly be in the cards and I would love to see an Art Direction nomination. The sets and the props were my favorite part of the film. Just take in the architecture, trolleys, cars, and time-appropriate props.

Besides directing, Clint Eastwood also contributed the score, nominated for a Golden Globe. I think it succumbs to indie/artsy guitar plucking far too often, a trend I find ever more obnoxious. The Academy loves Clint, but maybe they’ll go for him for Actor in Gran Torino and shut him out for Changeling.

One weird note is that there is a completely superfluous scene about the Oscars in the film. Christine’s coworkers go out to listen to the 1934 Oscar radio broadcast while she hangs back and happily cheers when It Happened One Night is announced the winner (wouldn’t it be something if the audio used in the film is from the actual broadcast; the Academy jealously guards that footage). All I could wonder is if Eastwood was sucking up; at 130 minutes in I was just ready to go.

It won’t be getting Director or Picture nominations and it shouldn’t. Specifics and theories after the jump.

I understand the importance of the investigation of the Wineville murders to the core story. Obviously how that investigation plays out goes a long way to explaining what might have happened to Walter. I think it spends too much time developing that story, however. I’m thinking of scenes like Gordon Northcott’s flight to Canada and his subsequent capture. The individual scenes generally work, but to what ends? It’s already a long movie, what do they contribute to the overall story? And because of their superfluous feel their emotions feel cheap and manipulative in hindsight. Why delve into such an in-depth look into the dark history of those chicken coops except to get a rise out of the audience?

The natural ending to me comes with the dual victories of Northcott’s conviction and Christine’s vindication before the police tribunal. But that’s not where the movie ends. Off the top of my head all these developments occur after that natural climax, adding something like 30 minutes to a film that already felt over:
-Northcott calling Christine to confess
-Northcott not confessing
-Northcott’s execution
-Christine’s return to work, continuing to look for her son during her breaks
-The return of another presumed-murdered child

My mom made the excellent point that the film dragged out much like Christine’s never-ending wait to hear definitive news of her son’s fate. If that was Eastwood’s intent then I can give him credit, though I presume he meant for the audience to experience the story’s unsatisfying and uncertain resolution instead of making the film actually drag. But even so, the execution in pacing and tone was off. The same point could have been made without feeling like the film drags to the end and/or without producing a moment that feels like a traditional climax.

To finish, a few notes on supporting players. John Malkovich amused me with his intensity and religiosity. I love Jeffrey Donovan on Burn Notice but what was the deal with that strange and inconsistent accent? It sounded like a weird mix of southern and Irish. Also take a look at what the actual Gordon Northcott looked like. It gave me the chills the first time I saw him, so true was Jason Butler Harner’s transformation. There are more photos in the LA Times’ look into its archives and it’s even more uncanny the more photos you see. If there’s a benefit to so much time given Northcott and his farm it’s that it means more screen time for Harner.

Also Amy Ryan makes a surprise appearance! She’s everywhere!