The work of Clint Eastwood, senior citizen-director, has been an interesting mix of genres: Western, War, Mystery, Urban Dramas, Romances. But they've carried a consistent theme: They're stories about non-conformists bucking the system and sometimes paying the price, frequently focusing on the fringes of society that get caught up in "the big story," and how it affects lives and the fabric of society.
In the course of these films he's directed a number of actors in off-beat roles that garner attention and win awards, roles that have a tendency to focus on the strengths of that particular actor's skill-sets: Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Laura Linney, Meryl Streep, Ed Harris, Tim Robbins, Kevin's Spacey and Costner, Sean Penn, Adam Beach, Ken Watanabe. Now, Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich and a whole raft of excellent character actors tell the story of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders from 1928, another of those weird stories of early life in California and the ever-present existence of corruption in the caretakers of the area. Jolie and Malkovich are excellent, he has rarely been this restrained, and Jolie carries the movie with a beaten-down fury and odd little grace notes that pass over her like quick-silver. Eastwood seems to focus on her lips (notice the poster?), in fact, one of the interesting choices is to show the period Los Angeles locations and recreations in a grey bleached-out quality, while Jolie's Christine Collins character provides the color, particularly the garish red lipstick that she wears perpetually. But Eastwood makes use of an incredible cast of new faces and terrific performances. Amy Ryan (nominated for "Gone, Baby Gone" last year) has another fine role in this, and Colm Feore ("Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould") plays L.A. Police Captain James Davis with a snaky smile and simmering demeanor. But there are ideal performances from relative newcomers. Michael Kelly plays an L.A. detective who manages to break the case, and its a measured unsentimental portrait of a desensitized cop developing a conscience. Jeffrey Donovan plays a nuanced heavy as a police higher-up who just wants to bury the case. Geoffrey Pierson has an anonymous character actor's face and a resoluteness as Collins attorney that surprises. Denis O'Hare is hissably good as an asylum's head doctor, and Jason Butler Harner is a fascinating combination of Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson as Gordon Northcutt. But the best of all may be young (14) Eddie Alderson, who has two scenes of heart-breaking regret that chill you right down to the bone.
It would all be for naught if the script weren't right, and J. Michael Straczynski's screenplay (Eastwood insisted on filming the first draft!) is taut, lean...and traceable. Some fabrication and combining of characters was accomplished, but after a a year of research, Straczynski (Babylon 5) wrote that draft in eleven days. There are scenes that feel a bit rote, but that would be nit-picking. Straczynski takes a personal incident, opens it wide and brings it to a satisfying, if not buttoned up ending. Eastwood films it in his usual spare style, lingering on the shots of Old Los Angeles remembered from his youth, meticulously recreated with CG and the extraordinary production design of James J. Murakami.
Eastwood has another film, "Gran Torino," opening January 2009. The trailer for it plays with "Changeling." He stars in it, too, after saying he was retiring from acting. I don't think "retire" is in Eastwood's vocabulary.
"Changeling" is a matinee.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008