Film focus

WHAT: “Changeling”

RATED: R for some violent and disturbing content, and language

RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

CAST: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Amy Ryan, Colm Feore

DIRECTOR: Clint Eastwood

RUNNING TIME: 2 hours, 20 minutes

‘Changeling’: quite the chess match

Angelina Jolie, who won her Oscar by playing mentally ill in “Girl Interrupted,” returns to the psyche ward for Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling,” a movie he might have titled “Motherhood Interrupted.” It’s a period piece, a true-crime mystery and a slice of history, vintage Eastwood in many ways. If the film is too long and a little unwieldy in its later acts, the consummate craftsman in Eastwood glosses over that with detail and righteous rage.

Jolie plays Christina Collins, a telephone switchboard supervisor and single mom in 1928 Los Angeles. She has to leave her 9-year-old son, Walter, home one Saturday when she’s called into work. When she gets home, he’s missing.

Months of frantic calls ensue, trying to rouse the LAPD into action. A crusading preacher (John Malkovich) takes up the cause. A kid turns up in Illinois and is delivered to her and the waiting press corps by a press-savvy police department.

“That’s not my son.”

“You must be mistaken,” a pushy cop (Jeffrey Donovan) insists. It’s been a few months. The boy has changed. Your memory is playing tricks on you. Besides, he adds, you’re a woman. And you know “how women are.”

As horrific as losing a child is, imagine losing one and having the absolute authority and influence of the Los Angeles Police Department determined to “make this all go away” by giving you a replacement boy, insulting you when you make a fuss, sending doctors around to bolster their case and, when you won’t play ball, having you institutionalized.

“Changeling” touches on several favorite Eastwood subjects – crimes against children in particular. But it’s worth noting that as good as Jolie is in the lead, Eastwood is no Spielberg when it comes to working with kids.

The mystery here is deep, with layers of meaning built into it. Eastwood gets at psychiatric bullying and gender issues of those dark ages of yore. In casting the always-cagey Malkovich as the preacher who takes on Collins’ cause, he suggests that we question the man’s motives, that Mrs. Collins might be a pawn in a larger Los Angeles chess match.

“Changeling” is a movie with no shortage of villains, starting with the police chief (Colm Feore, gaunt and scary). It packages Jolie in flapper attire and red-red lipstick and demands that she cry “I want my son back!” dozens of times, but it’s still one of her most empathetic roles. Amy Ryan has the “Angelina Jolie” role in this “Interrupted” mental hospital, the patient in a similar fix, the one who explains this nightmare of powerlessness to the new inmate.

But like the similar “Mystic River,” “Changeling” is a film without the urgency that the subject demands. Eastwood flatly lays out the criminal case that may be linked to Walter’s disappearance and takes his own sweet time doing it. He can deliver chilling murders and hangings, but when he sets out to unravel the whole affair, the “eureka” moments don’t have the proper kick.

“Changeling” is fascinating, high-minded and ambitious story, with twists and turns and implications far beyond the “true crime” origins of the tale. That it isn’t the emotional, surprising and engrossing Oscar contender Eastwood set out to make is one of the bigger disappointments of the fall.

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