I was interesting in seeing Changeling when it hit the theaters last fall, but somehow ended up missing it. Thanks to the wonder of On Demand television (which I imagine will put video rental places out of business even faster than NetFlix is) we were able to watch it last night. I recall writer J. Michael Straczynski (creator of Babylon 5) talking about it in the lead-up to its release, and as he always does he made it sounds really interesting. And sure, while he’s promoting his own work, Straczynski does tend to play fair when talking about it.

The actual film in fact exceeded my expectations, considering I was originally disappointed that it didn’t have any fantastic elements despite the premise: In 1928 Los Angeles, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) is a single mother to Walter (Gattlin Griffith). When Christine one day has to go in to work unexpectedly, she comes home to find that Walter has disappeared. The LA police – famously corrupt in that era – are at first uninterested in the case, but five months later bring Christine’s son back to her. Except that as soon as she sees him, she realized the boy isn’t Walter, but someone prentending to be Walter. Railroaded by Police Captain Jones (Jeffrey Donovan, who plays the lead in the series Burn Notice) into accepting him anyway, she soon collects objective evidence supporting her position.

So you can see why I might think such a story written by a science fiction author, and titled after a creature from folklore might have a fantastic premise underlying its story, but in fact the film is based on a real incident involving abducted children and their apparent murder, and is played absolutely straight. The film’s Wikipedia entry has several statements that the story was considered too fantastic by some despite its being largely true.

The story has an interesting episodic structure in which each episode seems to belong to a different genre. Walter’s disappearance is worked for pure suspense, while the abducted children starts as the tail end of a detective story before turning into a slice of a horror story. Police corruption and indifference is a major theme, and Christine also does a turn in a mental institution (and it sure seems like 1920s mental institutions were good places to stay well away from). There’s also the reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who has been crusading against LA police corruption and who becomes Christine’s strongest ally.

The acting in the film is its strongest asset, ranging from good to excellent. Jolie’s performance as Christine is quite good, wavering between personal strength and seeming well out of her depth, her voice becoming tremulous at many moments. But the outstanding performance is by Jason Butler Hamner as Gordon Northcott, the man accused of the abductions, who seems convincingly psychopathic while also being a huge coward. He has perhaps the most demanding role in the film, and he does a fantastic job.

As a period piece, the behavior of the LAPD feels very odd and scary compared to what we see in modern crime dramas, and yet still similar in many ways. (This may be an indication that I watch too many police procedurals on television.) The story feels like part of a bygone era without feeling stale.

At 2 hours and 20 minutes running time, the film has plenty of time to go into its various subjects in depth, and director Clint Eastwood approaches the story in a very matter-of-fact, low-key manner, which works quite well. There are a few dangling elements, some of which can be resolved by reading the historical record of the incident, and other of which are ambiguous because, well, they were never fully cleared up, but which leave the viewer with some things to think about afterwards, which is fine for a film based on a real and complicated incident.

In summary I recommend this film if you’re into any of the elements described, especially if you enjoy a story about improbable circumstances portrayed without sensationalism.