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Changeling (Clint Eastwood, 2008)
Clint Eastwood’s late career has seen him emerge as an aggressive myth breaker. His latest films, like most of his best, see him mercilessly scraping away any hope of solace by attacking the things the audience most holds dear, whether it’s a sense of justice, religion, freedom or nostalgia. From the anti-western Unforgiven, to his recent twin WWII epics, he’s gone out of his way to deconstruct easy answers and unquestioned ideals. Even in the narrative structures of films like Million Dollar Baby and The Bridges of Madison County, there exists an explicit suggestion that our forefathers lived far more complex lives than we might like to believe. This theme is again dominant in Changeling, Eastwood’s new kidnapping drama. The film marks the latest entry in an oeuvre that has done a great deal to complicate our collective past.
The opening moments of Changeling ease us into bygone days. At the beginning of the film, Eastwood cannily recycles Universal’s old studio logo from the 1940s. The first shot of the movie slowly, subtly shifts from black and white to color as the camera cranes in for a closer look at the city of Los Angeles that will serve as the setting. Telling a convoluted, but never unclear, tale of corruption and tabloid drama, Changeling quickly shatters any idealistic vision of our urban past. Through a series of jaw-dropping revelations and a thorough dissection of the manipulations of those in power, the sharp script begs the realization that such things are nothing new, no matter how tempted we might be to cluck our tongues at them in modern times.
Changeling has an entirely appropriate title. It’s a story-driven film that keeps shifting itself, moving from one target to another, and from one genre to another, in its crusade for justice. From police procedural to horror film, from feminist psychodrama to courtroom potboiler, it roves. Eastwood goes for the gut time and again, pummeling the audience with one grueling scene after another, in which children are placed in peril and characters are made to confront insanity and institutional indifference. It must be noted that the movie demands some degree of resolve from its audience, and it promises no simple resolutions in return. This will trouble some, yet one can’t call its rigorously factual approach dishonest or cheaply manipulative. It’s punishment with a purpose. As Changeling wears on, it illuminates a sprawling problem, far larger than any one woman.
In most respects, Changeling is a worthy entry in Eastwood’s body of work. Above all, it seems to assail the myth that state-imposed correction can bring about any sense of closure or revenge. Thematically, that makes it fall directly in line with Mystic River, and if it lacks a bit of that film’s ultimate power, it’s not for a lack of scope or effort. The cast here gives uniformly strong turns. Angelina Jolie and Eddie Alderson seem the clear standouts, but the entire ensemble deserves praise. The technical elements are as unfussy and accomplished as those in any of Eastwood’s recent films. His spare score is effectively sets mood without belaboring the point. His visual scheme emphasizes dark blues and blacks, giving the film a somber, united tone, even as its plot spirals in multiple directions. Like Changeling itself, the look here envelops the viewer, and then unmistakably complicates what’s being shown.