A Good Fight Always Ends

Moral injustice, despotic corruption, maternal strength — such age-old yarns of the human condition are pulled and frayed in “Changeling,” a drama that polishes gritty realism to a gothic sheen. Set in 1920s Los Angeles, the film chronicles the story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) as she searches for her missing son. What she finds instead, however, is the horrifying underbelly of a society braced by evil — a discovery that stretches her once-private search to universal proportions.

Through the lens of director Clint Eastwood (known for academy darlings “Million Dollar Baby” and “Mystic River,” and for being a generally bad-ass 78-year-old), the plot moves sometimes in alarming hurdles, sometimes in deliberate suspense and never without confidence or exactitude. From the first scene in the 140-minute saga, we teeter on seat’s edge — eyes glued, popcorn bag motionless, waiting for the next veering turn, each so harrowing it could only be based in truth.

Hard to swallow, too, that Jolie is human — her gargantuan lips are even more alienlike and unavoidable when slathered with deep-red lipstick, leaping from a washed-out backdrop of pinks and grays. Here, Eastwood’s use of color serves to energize an era typically construed in monochrome drab, easing us into a world that feels at once painstakingly authentic and hauntingly surreal. He lets us linger here, just long enough to get comfortable, before we snowball into madness with one brilliant scene.

The tinkering soundtrack provides a delicate scattering of notes as Christine returns from her job as a supervisor at Pacific Telephone and Telegraph, eager to see her son. Opening the door, she calls his name — but Walter isn’t there. The piano drops in brimming alarm. She exhausts every room. Searches the streets. Calls the police — who tell her to wait a requisite 24 hours before calling back. Those huge red lips tremble in panic, white knuckles gripping the phone, as she spins worst-case scenarios. When even the police refuse help, what’s there to do but worry?

Indeed, these are only the beginnings to a sweepingly beautiful end. Jolie’s internal dramas are profound, possessed by the visceral fears of essentially every mother on Earth. Her expert restraint is taut with personal understanding (and as mother to her own gaggle of multiracial orphans, it’s unsurprising). Where the role might invite melodrama or needless embellishment, Jolie remains faithful to her character’s sense of womanhood and dignity. Even at the most desperate or despondent moments (to say anything more would be a spoiler) Jolie resists the temptation to stray from cool resilience. Without demanding to be seen, we see her under an even more alluring light. In delivering Eastwood’s vision, she lets a truly terrific story tell itself.

Because, after all, the story is not exclusively about a mother’s resistance, but the very evils she resists, the failings of those we unquestionably trust and hold accountable. With one fell swoop, Collins plunges from safe familiarity into a place where the police can’t help her — nor her doctor, nor her psychiatrist. Her protests discarded by systematic oppression, she is left in an isolation that feels almost dystopian.

And then there are those who offer to help when her strength is hanging from its final thread. What makes the brutal succession of misfortune in “Changeling” bearable is not the admirable courage of its protagonist, but a reassurance that there is some good left in the world. John Malkovich electrifies as a truth-heralding reverend, and Amy Ryan tugs heartstrings as a charming psych-ward whore who deviantly quips that sometimes, you gotta say “Fuck you, and the horse you rode in on.”

The only real failing of the movie is perhaps a scene in its concluding half-hour, when the sappy piano twinkles return over an extreme close-up of Jolie’s face. Her swollen lips crowding the screen, she declares that yes, there’s still “hope” to be had. Well, no shit — after all the courthouse hearings, murderer run-ins and dials to every missing-child hotline imaginable, it’s sort of obvious you’re the hopeful type.

No, her best line (one indicative of the film’s grounding premise) comes at the film’s opening scene, when she tells Walter that one should “never start a fight — but always end it.” Clearly, her triumph proves that justice is always worth fighting for.