Credit: Tony Rivetti; Jr.

When you go into a new movie directed by Clint Eastwood, you can more or less count on the pleasure of his calm classicism — the deftly angled shots, the story that unfolds with well-carpentered precision, no matter how many surprise corners it bends around. In Changeling, which is based on events that took place in Los Angeles in 1928, the stately formality of Eastwood’s style is even more pronounced than usual; the whole film has a slightly remote period-piece gravity. When we first meet Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), who oversees a floor of telephone operators, she looks as stylized as a doll, with white makeup, ruby lipstick, and a flapperish hat.

The movie does a nice job establishing that Christine, for her time, is a modern woman — a go-getter who is more than comfortable in her role as a single mother to Walter (Gattlin Griffith), her 9-year-old son. Then disaster strikes: One evening, Christine arrives home to learn that Walter has vanished. She is, of course, devastated, even more so when the cops tell her it’s their policy not to look for a lost child until 24 hours have passed. Before long, they find the boy. Or so they say. But when Christine is reunited with Walter, she doesn’t recognize him. She claims it’s not him at all.

For a while, I thought Changeling, true to its title, might be an ambiguous, ethereal tale of identity. But no: Early on, it’s revealed that ”Walter” is three inches shorter than he was before (he is also now circumcised), and the scenario becomes clear. The new child is an impostor, and the police, led by the scowling martinet Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), have ordered Christine to call him her own so that they can come off as heroes.

The torment of Christine’s situation, and also the dastardliness of the cops (who turn a corrupt lie into media hype), gets rubbed in our faces. When Christine tries to fight back, egged on by the community activist Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), she is branded as crazy. Yet there’s little mystery, and therefore very little drama, to any of this. Jolie, who brought a tremulous power to her portrayal of Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart — another woman distraught over a lost loved one — isn’t given enough notes to play here. She’s brave, despairing, defiant, and monotonous. Changeling is a muckraker that crushes the audience under the dull weight of injustice. And when the film starts to show you what really happened to Walter, it grows even more oppressive. The trouble with Changeling is that it plays less like reality than like a bare-bones, moralistic rehash of other, better movies, such as L.A. Confidential or Frances. The oldfangled deliberateness of Eastwood’s style has backfired this time, only adding to the sense that though you may not have heard this particular story before, you already know everything that’s coming. C

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  • Movie
  • 114 minutes