Saturday, January 23, 2010

Movie Review: Changeling

produced and directed by Clint Eastwood
screenplay by J. Michael Straczynski


Changeling is based on a true story of Christine Collins, whose son Walter disappeared in 1928 from their home in Los Angeles. After five months, the city police department, under intense pressure to solve the case, produce a boy that they claim is Walter. Although Christine takes one look at the boy at the train station and says he is not her son. The LAPD, in wanting to cover up their mistake, insists that the boy is her son and that Christine is just suffering from exhaustion. When she keeps insisting that the boy is not Walter, the Captain in charge of the case declares that she is delusional and an unfit mother and has her committed to a mental institution.

Meanwhile, while Christine is in the asylum, a police inspector goes out on an unrelated case to Wineville in Riverside County to pick up a juvenile boy at the Norcutt Ranch who, according to the movie, entered the country from Canada illegally. This young boy then confesses to helping Gordon Norcutt in the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, in which Norcutt kidnapped young boys and brought them back to the family ranch where he murdered them. The second half of the movie is about trying to determine whether or not Walter was one of the unfortunate boys who died in Wineville, and Christine's attempts to get the Los Angeles Police Department to own up to their terrible treatement of her.

It's hard for me to be critical of this type of movie due to the gravity of the events that happened and the horror of what happened to these boys. Make no mistake: this is a horror film. Only it's more depressing because it's true and it also has to deal with the extreme corruption that ran rampant through the Los Angeles Police Department at that time.

I also admire Clint Eastwood as a director; most of the time, I can rent or go to any of his movies comfortable with the idea that I'm going to see a high-quality movie: well acted and with a believable plot. And the sets are exquisite; for someone like me who is a lover of anything vintage, looking at the sets in this movie was heaven on earth.

But I have to say that Changeling is not a great movie. Even with the story that has to be told, the movie drags, with virtually no tension in the story after the first hour. Angelina Jolie does a fine job, but her character is flat - practically a zombie. In the movie Christine lives in a vacuum, with no friends nor family whatsoever to support her in the immediate days after Walter's disappearance - something I found hard to believe. The music is weird and ill-fitting for this time period.

But my biggest gripe is one that I'm always having problems with: the historical accuracy of the film. Although the beginning of the movie says it's "A True Story," that's only because Straczynski says that 95% of the movie is based on archival information, and because the screenwriter sat down with the movie studio's legal department and verified all of the events in his screenplay.

BUT he left a few things out. I guess their reasoning is that if it's not in the story then it can't be verified as untrue, right? One big fact left out is that Gordon's Norcutt's mother helped him kill these boys and she actually pleaded guilty later to the murder of Walter Collins. But there is no mention of Mom in this movie at all. In addition, when young Sanford is asked by the detective how many boys were kidnapped and killed, he says he "stopped counting." But in reality, young Sanford Clark said that he helped Norcutt kill three boys, and it was only until much later that Norcutt said that he had killed up to 20, a claim that investigators could never confirm and was later retracted by Norcutt. But horrific movie scenes portray the chicken coop as something of a killing assembly line. There are more transgressions from the real, complete story, but I think you get the point.

Up until now, when a movie said it was "Based on a True Story," you knew you had to take some of the story-telling with a grain of salt. But I guess you really can't believe it when it says "A True Story," either. I'm sorry, but I believe in the accurate telling of history too much to let that slide. The boys who died in that chicken coop deserve better.

I found this article to be a good summary of how the movie differs from the true story. Here's the Wikipedia article on the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders.

The town of Wineville eventually changed its name to Mira Loma due to the notoriety of this case. As for Norcutt, he was hung by the neck until he was good and dead in 1930. I'm glad the movie portrayed him as a big chicken-shit (no pun intended) at his hanging - whether the portrayal was accurate or not.


Chris said...

Haven't seen this one yet, but probably will eventually since it's Eastwood. Thanks for the review!

Laurie said...

i think all Eastwood movies should be seen at least once; many are worth several viewings. Even the bad ones are worth seeing.

I was thinking this morning that maybe I got too hung up on the accuracy of the movie. I have no problem with movies that aren't accurate but are good movies - Fargo comes to mind. It just irks me when I see the words "A true story," when in reality it isn't. Why not call a spade a spade? "Based on a true story" would have been more accurate.

David Cranmer said...

I like Angie and Clint so I will check it out at some point but I'm sure I will have the same reaction as yours.

I will zip over and read these links...

David Cranmer said...

The way Gordon Northcott is half smiling (or is it a smirk) in the Wiki link is rather disturbing. Both articles are captivating and it makes me want to read more about the subject.

Laurie said...

He's a real d---head in the movie - creepy doesn't even begin to describe it. I agree on the fascinating aspects of the story, and what's even more interesting is how the screenwriter literally fell on the story - the archival documents were on the verge of being thrown away.

Melissa Marsh said...

I went and saw this at the theater with some friends - and as a mother, it haunted me afterwards. I also thought Angelina was so skinny she was about ready to snap. But I digress. It is most definitely a horror movie - I still see the scene in my head of the frightened boys in the chicken coop. *shudder*

Laurie said...

Yes, Melissa, that was a horrific scene. I could never forget it either.