Saturday, December 20, 2008

Eastwood's Latest Clunker: Changeling

My dad has been trying for weeks to get me to see Changeling, espousing praise of its directoral brilliance and Angelina’s stellar acting chops. Though my father and I usually agree on such subjects as film and music (he’s the one who clued me in to my beloved Scissor Sisters), I was wary to say the least. If you know me but at all, you know that I have an age-old axe to grind with Clint Eastwood. I think he is a clunky, unrefined butcher of a storyteller with a propensity for spiraling, un-succinct narratives that fail to evoke any sort of emotional response. So it was for this reason – and the fact that I do not like to support megalomaniacal, husband stealing Big Lips in her filmic ventures – that I was disinclined to see the film. However, after my father offered to pay me $10 if I went to see it but didn’t enjoy it, I finally relented.

The film relays the true story of Christine Collins, a single mother who – after leaving her child alone for a few hours at home – returns to find him gone. After months of searching, the corrupt Los Angeles police department – in an effort to repair their grizzly reputation - “reunites” her with her alleged child. The only problem? It’s not really her child. The more Collins protests, the more the police take action to keep her silent – they even lock her up and subject her to extreme maltreatment in a mental institution. It is only after a killer who potentially murdered her son is discovered that she is finally released. And that’s only the first half of the movie! At the risk of spoiling the end to any who will still want to view the movie after reading my critique, I’ll say no more.

The film’s principal weakness is Eastwood’s desire to preserve the historical facts of his subject matter. Though Collins’ tale is admittedly a phenomenal one, Eastwood tries too hard to include all the painstaking real-life details, and in the process ends up creating a film that sprawls too broadly over a number of storylines, themes and characters and - in consequence - lacks any real focus or emotional impact. Is Changeling aiming to tell a character-based story of the personal quest of one woman? Is it an exposé on the dark underbelly of the Los Angeles police department? A psychological study of a crazed and deranged lunatic (played deftly by Jason Butler Harner)? In theory, Changeling is all of these. In actuality, it is none. The film straddles its focus between each of these themes without pulling any of them off. Christine Collins – though one identifies with her plight – remains a cold and remote figure that never manages to become anything more than a one-dimensional victim rather than a nuanced human being. (To her credit, Jolie’s acting is more flat than bad, which I attribute to the screenplay and direction rather than to her inherent capabilities as an actress.) And though the film does succeed in scathingly depicting the police corruption of the 1920s, and in creating a thoroughly blood-curdling psychotic villain, neither of these subplots demands enough screentime to be considered the heart of the film. The result of these competing themes is a film that strives to include as many real life facts as possible without noticing that the outcome is a disjointed, ineffectual product.

Eastwood’s desire to keep the facts of the case intact also affects Changeling’s pacing. The film starts out briskly enough, but as soon as Collins becomes enmeshed in the corrupt ways of the police department, the film grinds to a standstill. Seeing Christine in the asylum is really a pointless exposition. We can all infer what sorts of horrors go on in such a place, and showing them is a waste of precious narrative time especially since the whole ordeal is peripheral to the overarching plot.

The film reaches a climax at about the 60% mark when a young boy confesses to witnessing and participating in the murders of several young boys, one of who may have been Collins’ son. That scene and the subsequent one in which the boy is forced to dig up the remains of the bodies serve as the film’s narrative and emotional pinnacle. I figured Changeling would be over soon thereafter, and was incensed to discover that I still had 45 more minutes to sit through!

The remains of the film prove to be the most tedious and the least focused. Eastwood drags us through not one but two separate courtroom trials and then subjects us to several lengthy scenes between Collins and her child’s potential murderer that are factually accurate but serve zero purpose in furthering the plot of the film. By including such pointless wastes of time into his film, Eastwood clearly shows that his propensity for telling a factual tale outweighs his desire to relay a captivating, efficient narrative.

The film also includes several classic Eastwood cringe-worthy moments. One happens at the asylum, when Collins’ hard luck hooker pal tells her that there are times when a lady has got to say “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on” to authority. In the following scene, Christine repeats this line to her power-tripping psychiatrist. The effect of this line is so clichéd, so trite and so irksome, I could have left the theater right then and there. It is as if Eastwood is winking at the audience hoping that the payoff of this repeated, obnoxious dialog will awaken audience sympathies by depicting Collins as a strong female despite her generally wooden character. In another needless scene, Collins listens to the announcement of the Oscars over her radio and – in a completely out of character fashion – delights when her underdog choice of It Happened One Night wins Best Picture. Again this stale attempt to lighten the otherwise downtrodden mood feels like a cheap and nauseating way of appealing to the Academy for a nomination. These moments – as well as the film’s overall weakness in structure – elucidate that Eastwood is a director who is out of touch with how to captivate his audience’s attention. His attempts at being visceral feel hackneyed, his humor pedestrian. Needless to say, I got my $10.

1 comment:

  1. I like how you said you wouldn't say anymore about the story...and then went on to tell the rest of the story. Also, have you seen Letters from Iwo Jima? It's the only Eastwood-directed movie I think holds up to the hype. But I'm not about to defend the crapfest that was Flags of Our Fathers.