The film has yet to begin, but the foreboding is already underway. A moody, bluesy sax plays over the production and distribution cards, then the words “A true story” appear against a black screen. The music continues somberly, plaintively, as if a funeral were about to commence. And as it happens, that’s what Changeling will inadvertently channel. Trudging forth with an ominous gait, haunted from the outset by its own narrative and formal inevitability, Changeling is a musty lament for something long gone—a lost child perhaps, but more so this sepulchral cinema of quality. Watching it, one can only try to locate whatever semblance of life remains, then tramp the dirt down.
With metronomic efficiency our protagonist appears, kisses her nine-year-old boy awake, trolley-cars him off to school, works a hard day, and brings her son home, each beat deliberately declared to echo later in the story. As Christine Collins, a single mom who works as a telephone dispatcher in Los Angeles in 1928, Angelina Jolie seems amiss: fashionably decked in a tube dress and black bobbed weave, roller-skating through rows of phone operators, her super-sized lips burning crimson as she answers a portable receiver holstered around her neck; she’s all set for a Smithsonian historical diorama. She’s also, especially when lost in a calf-length trench coat, positively skeletal. So from the outset she looks stricken (with anorexia and portent), even though the script demands that an eternal bond be established between Christine and son Walter in fifteen minutes or less, which they forge through the emphatic repetition of the breezy, it’s-the-1920s greeting “Hey, sport.” On the weekend, Christine gets called into work and has to leave her son home alone. “I’m not afraid of the dark,” he says, as if prodded by an off-screen animal trainer. “I’m not afraid of anything.” Uh-oh. Then Jolie departs, looking back at the house one last time, the camera pulling away from Walter standing sadly at the window, music swelling. This is no ordinary goodbye. Indeed, this is how the film dispatches with Walter—right at the fifteen-minute mark, right on schedule.
Click here to read the rest of Eric Hynes’s review of Changeling.