“Changeling” You Can Believe in: Eastwood’s Recipe for Moral Dilemma

Kenneth Crab Oct 24, 2008

Directed by Clint Eastwood
Imagine Entertainment, 2008

For almost four decades, Clint Eastwood’s films have been fleshing out the dark, violent heart that pumps lifeblood into this country’s history and civilization. Founded on equanimity, the moral bedrock from which springs his wry, distinctly American humor, Eastwood’s treatment of violence is serious yet never ponderous, resilient rather than pathological. His heroes struggle to resist its force, which is keyed to natural cycles of destruction and renewal, and envisaged as the index of their survival.

Eastwood’s modestly conservative worldview proves complex and hard-earned compared to the watered-down innocence and irony that constitute the twin currencies of most current American filmmaking. He takes nothing for granted, and his stoic, even ascetic jazz-style sensibility to storytelling often spins ostensibly clichéd narrative developments into subtle new variations. The most remarkable aspect of his westerns – the last of which, Unforgiven (1992), took the genre to the point of what Gilbert Adair has termed “post-postmodern” development – is their transparency. Contrary to the sandblasted realm of Sergio Leone’s grandly distilled morality tales, where the Eastwood star persona assumed a defining shape, they feature no allegorical abstraction. What we see is basically what we get.

His less genre-bound productions of the past fifteen years play no less straightforwardly, and have rendered his name synonymous with the mainstream Hollywood quality seal. Regardless of many deserved accolades, critical understanding of Eastwood’s clear-eyed, lucid aesthetic remains flimsy. His fairly unobtrusive style tends to be designated as classical, a label that suggests a much slicker and faster-paced approach to the material than he adopts. Eastwood is a primitive, in the sense that his films are marked by incompletion. Their narratives aren’t fully resolved, but constitute “bold outlines,” set to a tone at once “archaic and young,” as Constance Rourke described the forays of new 19th-century American literature.

The glossy Angelina Jolie vehicle Changeling is the third film – after A Perfect World (1993) and Mystic River (2003) – in which Eastwood, now all of 78 years young, articulates the impact of violence as a generational divide through the theme of child abuse. Jolie plays Christine Collins, single mom and telephone switchboard supervisor extraordinaire, who finds her nine-year-old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) missing when she returns home from work one spring evening in 1928. Initially dismissive, the LAPD appropriate her case as a self-promotional platform once a boy who says he’s Walter steps forward. Only he isn’t. Despite Christine’s objections and arguments to assert the child’s mistaken identity that would strike any halfwit as conclusive, the police high-handedly rebuke her, claiming she must still be in shock and should take her motherly duties seriously.

Once she goes public with her story under the tutelage of Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who relentlessly campaigns against the LAPD’s widespread corruption and profiteering, Collins becomes a liability, and Juvenile Division head Captain J. J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) promptly has her locked away in the County Hospital’s psychiatric ward. Meanwhile Detective Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly) traces Walter Collins’ last known whereabouts back to a farmhouse near Wineville, where psychopath Gordon Northcott (a splendid Jason Butler Harner) held and killed off a number of young boys he abducted. As the Northcott investigation hits the news, Christine Collins regains her freedom and files a lawsuit against the city as she resumes the search for her son.

Eastwood’s understated direction lets the action advance matter-of-factly, so that the unlikelihood of the true chain of events depicted seems all the more surreal. The characters are not plumbed for psychological depth or moral fiber beyond the historical record. They are subsumed under the storyline’s inexorable, almost tidal pattern of progress, the rhythm of which transpires most directly through the filmmaker’s elegant, self-composed score. Collins becomes a social reform activist as she goes through the motions of a personal quest to find her son. Northcott commits his heinous crimes because he feels compelled to, not because he suffers a particular trauma or condition. Paradoxically, their moral ambivalence derives from the single-mindedness that drives them. Thus Collins’ resistance to the culture’s innate tendency toward violence is not gender-based (as in the idealization of female weakness and passivity), but parentally inclined.

In a film that does away with romantic or sexual pursuit and conceives gender relations in terms of power dynamics, Eastwood privileges the maternal perspective to throw into stark relief how America’s savage patriarchal heritage passes as much from boys to men as vice versa. It’s an unsentimental, archetypal vision, perhaps best encapsulated by novelist Cormac McCarthy in the opening of Blood Meridian (1985), where he summons “a taste for mindless violence” that finds “the child the father of the man.” The mother figure absorbs this legacy as an innermost outsider. Her steadfast temperament scrupulously weathers the waves of regeneration through violence, and Changeling, like The Bridges of Madison County (1995) before it, pays her a moving, gentlemanly tribute.

Changeling is currently playing in theaters.

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