The first signs of trouble in Clint Eastwood's period drama Changeling arrive early. Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single mother in 1928 Los Angeles, readies her nine-year-old son, Walter, for school; heads to her job as a telephone operator supervisor (nice detail: the roller skates she wears to glide quickly from one end of the phone bank to the other); promises Walter she'll take him to a movie on Saturday; etc. In his better films, Eastwood has taken care with such scene-setting, meticulously establishing the moods of working-class Boston or the rituals of the gym. Here, by contrast, there's a rushed, tentative quality to Eastwood's direction, perhaps even a slight discomfort with the rhythms of female domesticity. The exposition is too obviously expository. It's a small fault, but it portends larger ones.
Christine is forced to cancel the movie date with Walter when she's called to fill in for a sick colleague. She leaves the boy alone at home and, when she returns late in the day, he's vanished. The police investigate but find nothing. It is five long, desperate months before her prayers are answered by a call from the LAPD informing her they've found her son traveling in Illinois with an adult drifter.
There's just one problem: The boy who arrives back in Los Angeles is not her son. This fact is immediately evident to her (and to us), but the boy claims to be Walter and the police, eager to close the case, agree with him. "You're in shock, and he's changed," the dismissive police captain (Jeffrey Donovan) hectors Christine, persuading her to take the boy home "on a trial basis." There, Christine can't help but notice that this stranger is three inches shorter than Walter was at the time of his abduction and that, unlike her son, he is circumcised. The police are unmoved. They send a doctor to affirm, again, that the boy is Walter; they respond to her declarations that of course she'd know if he were Walter, she's his mother, by arguing that she is therefore "in no position to be objective." When she finally tries to go public with her predicament, the captain has her locked in a brutal mental facility filled with other women who have, in one way or another, annoyed the police.
This is, to put it mildly, a fantastical story, the kind of dark, absurdist allegory that we might have expected to ooze from the pen of Kafka. It is also, remarkably, a true (or at least trueish) story, as the film announces in its opening moments. But it is not enough to declare such improbable material historically accurate and leave it at that. It is Eastwood's burden to make it feel true, to overcome our skepticism at its innate outlandishness, and in this, Changeling is a singular failure. Scene after scene, twist after twist--and this is a film of many twists--rings false. I have been a fan (and defender) of Eastwood for as long as I can remember, but Changeling is a genuine stinker.