Note: This review contains spoilers.
Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) was an unnoticed resident of a 1920s Los Angeles suburb until the day she returned home from work and discovered her son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), had disappeared. Her pleas with the police to help her find her child began a hunt that would develop into one of the most infamous cases of child kidnappings and killings on record -- and expose some municipal corruption as well.
Recounting many of the actual events, this Clint Eastwood film approaches its macabre subject from Christine's perspective. Dealing with the LAPD and its already tarnished reputation, the anxious parent pesters Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) for five months to find this missing person. When a boy meeting Walter's description is located, the department seizes the opportunity to create some positive press. But the well-photographed reunion doesn't go exactly as planned, because the mom declares the youngster (Devon Conti) isn't hers. Desperate to display a positive public image, Captain Jones refuses to admit the possibility of a mistake and orders Christine to "try him out for a couple of weeks."
Eventually, after experts fail to convince her the child is her son, Christine returns the misidentified boy to police. In return, Captain Jones has the grieving mother forcibly placed in a mental asylum (apparently a popular tactic used at the time to deal with difficult citizens -- especially women.)
Meanwhile we are introduced to Sanford Clark (Eddie Alderson), a young boy from Canada who has been apprehended on immigration violations while living on a chicken ranch just outside of Los Angeles. While in custody awaiting deportation, he begins confessing the sordid details of a series of malicious murders he has witnessed.
A story about a serial killer is obviously not going to be family friendly material. However, this film's main purpose is not to dwell on how grisly the killings were (although we are privy to a couple of horrific flashback scenes of a man wielding a blood-dripping ax on an unseen victim). Instead, it sets out to demonstrate the dishonesty of the LAPD and their attitude toward nuisances who got in their way. In tackling these topics, Changeling shines with powerful performances and intriguing writing, as well as sets and costumes that immerse audiences in the time period.
Along with the noted implications of brutal slayings, this mature-themed movie depicts men being shot by a firing squad, a woman subjected to a body cavity search (details not seen), young boys being physically abused and an explicit portrayal of a man executed by hanging. There are also discussions regarding prostitution, circumcision and a reference to abortions. Profanities, while infrequent, include four sexual expletives.
With all the twists and turns in this tragic tale, it is surprising no one has tried to adapt it into cinematic entertainment sooner. Yet putting morbid curiosity aside, the film illustrates that one person can fight city hall -- especially if she's armed with the determination of a mother's love.