Film: Changeling

Changeling is a film written by J. Michael Straczynski and directed by Clint Eastwood. It was distributed in 2008 by Universal, and stars Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, and Jeffrey Donovan.

In the late 1920s, the bustling city of Los Angeles is being run by a police force notorious for violence and corruption. It is here that Christine Collins (Jolie) lives with her young son, Walter. When she returns from work one afternoon and finds that her son is missing, the distraught single mother begs the LAPD to help her find him.

After five months of searching the police report that they have found Walter alive in the company of a drifter. Christine is taken to meet the boy at a train station, where she realizes that the child before her is not her son. When she attempts to make police Captain J.J. Jones (Donovan) aware of this, he insists that she is the one who is mistaken, and simply doesn't recognize her own son after the ordeal he's endured. With even the boy claiming that he is Walter Collins and that Christine is his mother, the confused woman succumbs to Captain Jones' pressure and takes the child home with her in the hopes that she will begin to recognize him.

When she cleans the boy up after arriving home that evening, Christine's suspicions are confirmed: Not only is this boy circumcised when her son was not, but he is also 3 inches shorter than Walter. Her son's teacher and dentist also confirm that this boy is not her son. When she reports this information to Jones, however, he refuses to listen. Unwilling to accept that they have made a politically embarrassing mistake after the Rev. Gustav Briegleb (Malkovich) has released a series of scathing radio broadcasts bringing the LAPD's criminal activities to light, the police inform her in no uncertain terms that the strange boy is Christine's son, and that the case is now closed. As Christine grows increasingly more desperate in her attempts to find someone, anyone, who will help her find her real child, she quickly learns that Jones and the LAPD will do absolutely anything to keep her from telling her side of the story.

Changeling is a hard-hitting drama that explores themes of police corruption and the plight of women in the era of The Great Depression. The events depicted in the film are based on the true story of Christine Collins and the search for her missing child. While the film received mixed reviews from critics, it was nominated for numerous awards, including several for Best Cinematography and Best Actress for Angelina Jolie's performance.

Not to be confused with the 80s film, The Changeling, or the RPG Changeling: The Lost. For the trope, see Changeling Tale. For the happy version, see Changeling Fantasy.


Provides Examples Of:

  • Adult Fear: What mother doesn't fear when she leaves her child alone?
  • All in the Eyes: This effect is used in one of the scenes where the distraught Christine is in the police station, calling attention to the emotion in her eyes.
  • Ambiguous Situation: Walter is not returned to Christine... but in the epilogue, one of Northcott's escaped victims has been found. He says that both he and Walter escaped from their prison, but were separated in the dark. Maybe Walter was recaptured by Northcott, maybe he got away.
  • Badass Preacher: Briegleb is a firebreathing Determinator in his mission to expose the LAPD's wrongdoings.
  • Based on a True Story: Based on the true story of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, also known as the Wineville Chicken Murders. Though as mentioned below under Shown Their Work, Straczynski's meticulous research actually qualifies this to be subtitled as not just based on, but "A True Story." Still some important deviations from the true story, the most important of which is that in reality no escape from Northcott's farm ever took place and it is established that Walter was among the murdered victims. Also, while there was a speculation that Northcott might have killed up to 20 children, only three murders are officially confirmed.
  • Bedlam House: The psychiatric hospital is used as little more than a dumping ground for women who get in the way of the police. The head doctor is a corrupt weasel with no interest in his patients' wellbeing and the nurses aren't much more than his enforcers.
  • Broken Record: Christine's confrontation with Northcott.
  • Changeling Tale: With society replacing fairies as the antagonist.
  • Composite Character: Dr Steele, Detective Ybarra and Carol Dexter are all composites of several people from historical records.
  • Corruption of a Minor: Sanford Clark is forced by his Serial Killer uncle to help kidnap other young boys, and later on to dispose of the bodies.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Northcott is improperly hanged. His rope is shortened so that he strangles to death, rather than having his neck broken by it.
  • The Determinator: Christine, and how! Briegleb is also drawn into Christine's orbit because of his own determination to expose corruption.
  • Dirty Cop: Captain J.J. Jones, who is willing to go any length to protect the image of the LAPD, including giving Christine a stand-in for her child, forcing her to care for him, and committing her to a mental institution when she finally decides to stand up for herself.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Subverted by Gordon Northcott. As he's led to the noose, he becomes increasingly pathetic.
  • Force Feeding: When Christine is committed to a psychiatric facility in order to keep her quiet, nurses and orderlies force her to take pills to keep her sedated.
  • Gaslighting: Attempted by the LAPD and their colleagues on Christine, to a truly astonishing degree.
  • Good Is Not Soft: Ybarra isn't a jerk or hopelessly corrupt, but he is far more competent than his crooked colleagues, as is both able to find evidence of Walter's kidnapping, and get Arthur to confess to his deception.
  • Historical Beauty Update: The real Christine Collins was quite a plain-looking woman. She is played here by Angelina Jolie.
  • Hope Spot / Foregone Conclusion: Christine's initial belief that her son has been found alive and well. It occurs twenty minutes into a 3 hour movie, so... yeah.
  • Karma Houdini: Dr Steele, though forced to release Christine and all other falsely instated women, does not seem to face any repercussions for his horrific treatment of his patients, and for all we know is still torturing some poor souls by the closing of the story.
    • In real life, all the cops involved in the cover-up did not receive much comeuppance for their actions. Some were demoted, others were suspended temporarily, most were eventually re-instated.
  • Ironic Echo: Gordon Northcott claims he did not kill Walter and that Christine is accusing him of a crime he did not commit just like the police did to her. He may be right, though that still doesn't excuse everything else he did.
  • Kids Are Cruel: The fake Walter, Arthur Hutchens, agreed to go along with deceiving a grieving mother by posing as her son in return for seeing his favorite actor Tom Mix. He knows full well what he's doing and smugly tells officers upon interrogation he's off the hook since he's 'just a kid' (though Detective Ybarra is perfectly willing to call a bluff on that).
  • Knight Templar: Jones wants to uphold the good name of the police force, even if it means deceiving victims and using horrific methods to silence those in his way. Even as he is tried and has his crimes placed in front of him in court, he is still insistent that Christine shouldn't have interfered. Although this is open to Alternate Character Interpretation. He could simply be covering up his own incompetence.
  • Meaningful Echo: "Fuck you... and the horse you rode in on."
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: Dr Steele
  • Music for Courage: Northcott sings a christmas carol as he's being hanged.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: At times, Jeffrey Donovan sounds less 1920s Irish-American and more 2000s Miami.
  • Parents Know Their Children: What kick-starts the movie's conflict.
  • Period Piece: Set in the 1920s
  • Precision F-Strike: Quite powerfully used by Christine when she is asked by the psychiatrist at the mental institution to sign an affidavit stating that the police were correct all along.
  • See You in Hell: When Northcott pushes Christine's Berserk Button a few times too much, she snaps and screams, "I hope you go to hell!" From his reaction, he is clearly terrified that this may be his destiny.
  • Serial Killer: Gordon Northcott, who kidnapped and murdered more than 20 young boys on a small farm in California.
  • Shown Their Work: Straczynski did particularly intensive research to ensure that he could legally subtitle the film "A true story" rather than "Based on a true story." He ended up drawing on over 6,000 pieces of documentation on the case. Straczynski also referred to his academic background in psychology and sociology to portray how the psychiatrist might twist someone's words to make them seem delusional.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Northcott sings Silent Night when he's being hanged.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Northcott completely falls apart as he's led to the noose, demanding that he not be marched to it so fast and that he be allowed to touch every step on the way up.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: We learn what happens to the main characters... to a degree.