Clint and Angelina Bring a Changeling Child to Cannes

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Universal Pictures / Everett

Angelina Jolie in The Changeling

At the wedding of art and industry that is the Cannes Film Festival, Clint Eastwood is by far the most famous bridesmaid. Since 1985 this Hollywood legend has brought five films to Cannes — not as special screenings, where he has nothing to lose, but in the ego-bruising competition for the top prize — and the first four times (with Pale Rider, Bird, White Hunter Black Heart and Mystic River he's gone home empty-handed. It's not that the old cowboy needs another trophy: he's twice won Oscars for best director and best picture, with Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. Perhaps the businessman in him knows that his movies will get more free publicity when he stands on the Grand Palais steps, and his image is broadcast around the world, than he would if they were to win the Palme d'Or.

And so on Tuesday night he will stride across the red carpet, accompanied by that nonpareil paparazzi magnet Angelina Jolie, for the screening of Changeling. The speculation is that Eastwood has a better shot at winning this year because the head of the festival Jury is Sean Penn, who won the best actor Oscar for Mystic River and may think he owes Clint a favor. It's also the consensus that this session of Cannes, where more than half the competing films have already been shown, is a relatively weak one, and that Eastwood's most acclaimed competitor so far is the Israeli animated documentary Waltz With Bashir. We'll see. Only the rash try to read the minds of the jurors, and every year's awards list brings surprises and disappointments.

Changeling is an epic, fact-based story — depicting sadistic, systematic corruption in the municipal government, the police department and the medical establishment of 1920s Los Angeles — that has the novelty of being virtually unknown today. The script, by TV writer-producer J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5, Jeremiah), juggles elements of L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia, The Snake Pit and any number of serial-killer thrillers. But at its center are the heartache and heroic resolve of a woman who has lost the one person she loves most and is determined to find him, dead or alive, against all obstacles the authorities place in her way. In that sense the movie is a companion piece to last year's Cannes entry A Mighty Heart, in which Jolie played the wife of kidnapped journalist Daniel Pearl — except that Changeling is far more taut, twisty and compelling.

Christine Collins (Jolie) works as a supervisor at Pacific Telephone and Telegraph, where she patrols the operator bank on roller skates. She's a conscientious employee, but her life is devoted to her nine-year-old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith), whose father walked out when the child was born. One day Christine returns home to find Walter missing. As the days and months drag on, his disappearance becomes big news, and when word comes that the boy has been located, the press is there en masse at the train station. Instantly she sees that this "Walter" (Devon Conti) is not her son; but the police insist that he's Walter — case closed.

The officer in charge, Capt. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), dismisses Christine's evidence of differences between the two boys: this one is a few inches shorter, his dental records don't match Walter's, his teacher doesn't recognize him ... and he's been circumcised! When Christine presses her objections, Jones has her confined to the psychopathic ward of the Los Angeles Hospital, in the company of other women with the potential to embarrass the cops. ("If we're insane," says Amy Ryan as a prostitute subjected to electroshock therapy for her outspokenness, "nobody has to listen to us.") Her only ally is a preacher and radio crusader, Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who sees Christine's case as another heinous example of the Police Dept.'s venality.

Meanwhile, a vagrant boy (Eddie Alderson, the best of a very strong bunch of child actors here) directs a police detective to a chicken ranch in Wineville, about 40 miles west of L.A. There, a Canadian named Gordon Northcott (nicely played by Jason Butler Harner as a man who tries to hide his darkest impulses under the aw-shucks amiability of a Gary Cooper rube) has committed atrocities on some 20 kidnapped boys. Are these crimes related to Walter's disappearance? And if so, will the cops bring the matter into the glare of publicity, or suppress the awful information?

A movie with all these gruesome elements could easily be sensational. Maybe it should be. Maybe the telling should have a little flair, and a headlong rush toward dreadful truths. But that's not Eastwood's way. He just wants to tell the story, in uninflected, police-procedural fashion; the movie is like a flatfoot following a suspicious trail with no special intuition but an admirable doggedness. It doesn't hurtle, it ambles. You will look elsewhere (on the Internet) for documentation about the Wineville Chicken Coop matter, and the criminality of then-Mayor George Cryer as a pawn of the Crawford mob, of the L.A.-wide corruption that makes Al Capone's Chicago a shining city on a hill by comparison. Eastwood is after just the facts, ma'am — with occasional prime emoting from Jolie.

With flaring red lipstick on a face that hasn't seen much time in the California sun, and with a grieving matched in severity only by her will to learn the truth, Jolie carries the burden of the first hour. As the story expands, and finds new avenues of real-life horror, Jolie can coast on the narrative instead of having to push it with her grit and tears. The movie becomes an ensemble piece, with a dozen or so character actors carrying the storyline. In other words, Changeling is exactly as good as its makings. By the end, with its purposeful accumulation of depravities, both individual and institutional, Eastwood's non-style has paid off; the story's weight could come close to burying you in despair.

You may ask: There's that much evil in the world? And Clint, thinking more about storytelling craft than Cannes crockery, would say, Sure. But there are heroes too. And this time, the righteous gunslinger is a mom with no weapon but her inexhaustible love.