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Film / Changeling

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Changeling is a 2008 American drama film written by J. Michael Straczynski, directed by Clint Eastwood, and starring 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:

  • Adapted Out: Sarah Louise, Northcott's mother and accomplice to his murders, is wholly absent from the film, and in fact not even mentioned at all; the omission is rather glaring, since in real life, she was possibly the one who orchestrated Walter Collins's death.
  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: Northcott at his execution weeps inelegantly, begs not to be made to walk too fast, and requests someone pray for him. Considering what he did, it's hard to feel sorry for him, even if you are opposed to capital punishment.
  • 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.
  • Arc Words: "Never start a fight. Always finish it."
  • Asshole Victim: Serial child murderer Northcott's hanging goes wrong and results in him slowly and painfully asphyxiating. What a shame.
  • Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop: Reverend Briegleb's first sermon declares the LAPD is "the most violent, corrupt and incompetent police department this side of the Rocky Mountains." The rest of the film goes on to show how right he is.
  • Badass Preacher: Briegleb is a fire-breathing Determinator in his mission to expose the LAPD's wrongdoings.
  • The Bad Guys Are Cops: Trying to cover up their incompetence, the cops engage in gaslighting Christine Collins and unknowingly allow more time for Northcott to continue murdering boys.
  • Based on a True Story: Based on 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 speculation that Northcott might have killed up to 20 children, only three murders were officially confirmed, which Northcott was convicted of.
  • 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.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Though Captain Jones is Christine's personal tormentor, the Mayor and the Chief are the ones who foster and maintain the rampant corruption that enables him, and both are shown to not give a damn about ordinary citizens.
  • Big Good: Though the film focuses on Christine's personal ordeals, Reverend Briegleb is the one fighting for the city as a whole, and it's not until he intervenes that Christine's able to stop the LAPD from destroying her further.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: Although he's still clearly a horrible bastard, Northcutt has shades of this when he refuses to tell Christine what happened to her son... because that would be a lie and lying is a sin. This on the day of his execution.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Northcott is executed and the LAPD officers that gaslit Christine are brought to justice. However, Christine never sees Walter again, though there is a possibility that Walter may have escaped Northcott's ranch without being recaptured.
  • Broken Record: Christine's confrontation with Northcott.
  • Changeling Tale: With society replacing fairies as the antagonist.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Reverend Briegleb and Detective Ybarra.
  • 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. Not that anyone really cares.
  • The Determinator: Christine, and how! Briegleb is also drawn into Christine's orbit because of his own determination to expose corruption. She did tell Walter, "Never start a fight. Always finish it."
  • Dirty Cop: Captain J.J. Jones, who is willing to go any lengths 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. Rev. Briegleb also reveals to Christine that other corrupt cops run the city's illegal alcohol traffic, having violently murdered their rivals.
  • Disappeared Dad: Walter's father apparently abandoned the family due to not liking the responsibility. In real life, his father was in jail when Walter was kidnapped, facing an armed robbery charge, and speculated it might have been committed by some criminal rivals.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: Captain Jones stubbornly corrects Christine's attorney S.S. Hahn on her client actually being "escorted" rather than being "thrown" into the psychiatric hospital, lacking any concern that he did so without a warrant.
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy Is Torture: Under Dr. Steele, the LA mental hospital uses ECT blatantly as a method of punishment for disruptive patients.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Assuming Northcott is being honest in his Yank the Dog's Chain moment about his fear of going to hell for telling her (what he claims would be) a comforting lie, his repentance is clearly a self-serving attempt to avoid damnation, rather than genuine remorse for his actions and a desire to soothe the pain he's caused. His apparent sincerity as he says this suggests that he genuinely doesn't understand the flaw in his reasoning.
  • 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 Cannot Comprehend Evil: When Sanford tells Ybarra that he and Northcott killed "around 20" children, Ybarra quite adamantly/desperately insists that it's not true because "Nobody can just up and kill twenty kids", though the fact that the existence of serial killers was not common knowledge at this point also explains his incredulity.
  • Good Is Not Soft: Ybarra isn't a jerk or hopelessly corrupt, and is far more competent than his crooked colleagues, shown by being both able to find evidence of Walter's kidnapping, and get Arthur to confess to his deception.
  • Hate Sink: All of the antagonists demand the audience's utter disgust; even those with mildly good intentions are conveyed as smug, vicious, and utterly remorseless in deceiving and torturing Collins. It's even more disturbing since they are based on real people.
  • Historical Beauty Update: The real Christine Collins was quite a plain-looking woman. She is played by gorgeous 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 two and a half hour movie, so... yeah. Another hope spot happens at the end when a boy appears to have escaped Northcott's captivity and claims Walter escaped as well.
  • 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.
  • It's All About Me: In his Yank the Dog's Chain moment, Northcott claims that the reason he can't tell Christine that he killed her son right before his execution is because he's afraid of telling a lie before he has time to atone for it, as he thinks it will send him to hell, clearly caring more for his own suffering than Christine's anguish.
  • Karma Houdini: Dr. Steele, though forced to release Christine and all the other wrongly committed 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 reinstated. Captain Jones also never paid the $10,800 in damages that Christine Collins was awarded.
  • Kick the Dog: After everything else he's done, Northcott's Yank the Dog's Chain moment below still stands out as another pointless piece of cruelty. Strangely, though, he doesn't see it as such, and claims the true sin would be keeping his promise.
  • 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 that he's off the hook since he's 'just a kid' (though Detective Ybarra is perfectly willing to call his 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.
  • Lack of Empathy: Northcott is a Serial Killer of children, so this is a given. The various people who destroy Christine's life also show this to one degree or another.
  • Meaningful Echo: "Fuck you... and the horse you rode in on."
  • Missing Child: The whole plot of the film is the stuff of parents' nightmares. The story is all about a woman leaving for work, coming home to find that her child is gone, and then not only receiving no help at all from the authorities about it, but they even actively begin Gaslighting her when she points out their mistakes. And then comes Act 2, and we find out that there's been a serial killer kidnapping children, and that Christine's son isn't the first cover-up the police have done. Also, her son is never found. Oh, and this all really happened.
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: Dr. Steele.
  • Music for Courage: Northcott sings a Christmas carol as he's being hanged.
  • Not Afraid of Hell: Averted for Northcott. He refuses to tell Christine whether or not he murdered Walter because he doesn't want to lie after he found religion. And his face has the biggest look of terror on it when Christine tells him that she hopes he goes to hell.
  • 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.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Played straight with Dectective Ybarra and completely subverted with Captain Jones and Chief Davis.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Dectective Ybarra was ordered by Captain Jones not to investigate Sandford's murder confession but does so anyway since Walter Collins was among the boys Sanford claimed to have helped murder.
  • 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 indeed be his destination.
  • Self-Plagiarism: J. Michael Straczynski reuses the "Never start a fight but always finish it" line from the Babylon 5 episode "Objects at Rest".
  • Serial Killer: Gordon Northcott, who kidnapped and murdered up to 20 young boys on a small farm in California. This is set before the existence of serial killers was common knowledge, predating the crimes of Ed Gein by two decades, explaining Ybarra's refusal to accept that anyone would be capable of such crimes.
  • 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 pages 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.
  • Turbulent Priest: Rev. Briegleb campaigns against police corruption in LA, and reveals to Christine how deep it's gone. When she refuses to accept the impostor the police foist off as her missing son and is wrongly committed to a mental institution, he helps free her and expose the scandal.
  • 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.
  • Wrongfully Committed: Christine Collins is reluctantly subjected to confinement in a mental asylum after refusing to acknowledge that the missing child brought back by the local police is her son Walter.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: The day before his execution, Northcott tells Christine that if she comes to see him, he'll tell her how he murdered her son so she can put the matter to rest. He then refuses, for reasons that are not entirely clear, though are apparently tied to his terror of damning himself on such a crucial day.