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Pacing, performances hit hard in Eastwood’s “Changeling”

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Angelina Jolie confronts a corrupt LAPD captain (Jeffrey Donovan) in "Changeling."

It’s a filmmaker’s neverending dilemma: how to distill a decades-spanning true story into a movie that’s a) short enough to keep viewers’ attention and b) long enough to do its characters’ real-life counterparts justice. Look to “Changeling” for the answer. The haunting, unnervingly tense thriller — file these adjectives under “use for any/all Clint Eastwood movies” — clocks in at 160 minutes but seems much shorter, thanks to careful pacing and measured performances.

Topping that list of said performances is Jolie’s impressively restrained but effective turn as Christine Collins, a single mother mired deep into every parent’s elemental fear: the unexplained disappearance of a child. Though Jolie is an Eastwood newcomer, she’s a natural (Dirty Harry, after all, tends to pick actors known more for restraint than over-the-top fits of hysteria). She hits every one of the cycles of grief but never once “acts” like a grieving mother; she is one.

The cause for that grief is the too-horrible-to-be-fake story of Collins, who returns home from a Saturday shift in 1928 to discover her son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) missing. The smug LAPD captain she calls (Jeffrey Donovan sporting an indecipherable accent) could care less about a missing child — until radio broadcast preacher Gustav Briegleb (an impressive Malkovich) takes up her cause. Then Capt. Jones happens upon a homeless lad (Arthur Hutchins) and sees an opp for good publicity. So he dumps in Collins’ lap while insisting — to the media and a horrified Collins — that it’s Walter. The mistake leads to a department-wide coverup, particularly when cops pick up fast-talking drifter Gordon Northcott (a skin-crawlingly creepy Jason Butler Harner) for butchering 20 children.

This begs many questions. Was Walter his victim? Did he die, dirty and frightened, inside a chicken coop like so many others? Or did he escape to freedom and remain hidden out of fear? I will not answer these questions, and neither does Eastwood. Ever the shrewd, careful director, he doesn’t force an ending that never existed for the sake of “drama.” (Expect Hollywood’s version of closure and you’re sure to be disappointed.) Instead, he hones his focus on the intersecting stories of Collins and Northcott. Better still, he paces “Changeling” to mirror the unfolding of these stories: things come to pass slowly and then all at once. Yes, as the film winds to a close, one story steamrolls right into the other; it’s impossible to separate them, and so Eastwood doesn’t. It’s a wise choice, since Jolie and Harner do great work.

In fact, it’s Harner who commands much of the screen in the film’s third act. He’s an actor who’s made no name for himself in TV roles and movie bit parts; not anymore. This is the kind of performance that ought to merit critical praise but, sadly, probably won’t (Jolie’s got better bone structure, you see, and her lips look better coated in ruby-red lipstick). He ratchets up the creepiness factor by playing down the malice; his Northcott is more slimy sycophant than slice-and-dice killer. He smooths his hair, lobs a clever remark to mobs of reporters, even flirts with Collins at his trial. Too bad Ted Bundy’s a 20th-century killer; he could have learned a thing or too from Harner. He’s that good.

Other players, too, make “Changeling” feel more real, less maudlin. Note the work of Amy Ryan as a smart-mouthed and street-smart prostitute with more than a few skeletons in her closet. Here’s to hoping she never becomes a leading lady; it will ruin her for tarnished, character-rich parts like this. And kudos to Malkovich, who goes against type as a reverend who’s neither preachy nor weepy. He’s a quiet man, indeed, but one with a mission he refuses to compromise.

Which, of course, could be said of Eastwood: He’s a director on a mission, and that mission is to tell this true story with as little pretense — and no bells or whistles or unnecessary hysterical crying jags — as possible. Mission accomplished.

Grade: B+

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