Changeling is a 2008 inspiring film directed by Clint Eastwood. It is based on an American drama known as the “Wineville Chicken Coop”. Christine Collins, played by Angelina Jolie, is a single mother in the 1920s whose son mysteriously goes missing. The film goes on a journey with Collins leading her to discover the corruptness of the Los Angeles Police Department. Though the film incorporates multiple plots, the main narrative revolves around Christine Collins and her unbreakable spirit as she attempts to solve the mystery of the kidnapping of her son.
The theme of the movie is that through a horrible tragedy, a triumphant success can come out of it. Furthermore, it shows that hope and love can overcome all pain and suffering. It is because of the film’s use of cinematography, editing, camera movement, composition and overall mise en scène that the theme of the film is clearly represented.
The opening sequence of the film gives significant information about the setting and the narrative.
This is accomplished with the use of establishing shots. The film begins with a black backdrop and plays non-diegetic music. The slow tempo music provided by brass instruments gives the film a sense of a cryptic effect. As a result, we get a vision of what genre this film could be. The music also helps trigger tension and stress from the audience. Besides the music, a teardrop on the black backdrop is shown, hinting to a sad, drama genre. A fade-in then takes us into a nearly black, almost white establishing shot of the city of Los Angeles. The date and location of the shot are provided at the center of the screen as “Los Angeles. March 8, 1928.”
In regards to cinematography, the lack of color that is provided informs us that the story takes place in the past when everything was presented on televisions in black and white. This occurred during the “Jazz Age,” which also explains the instrumental music that is playing during the opening sequence. The cinematography additionally helps illustrate much of the California setting and time in which the film takes place. The high angle camera begins in the sky and moves down towards the traffic, people, and other objects which make up the setting. The production set includes old fashioned cars, palm trees, milk trucks, and the distinctive vintage look of California during the 1920s.
As the opening sequence fades out, we are transported to the first scene of the film into a house by a camera pan. Collins is suddenly awakened by her alarm and then wakes up her son Walter. The use of light and shadowing in this scene was quite apparent. It showed the joy and love between the mother and son during this scene before an unfortunate kidnapping took place. As the sun was shining brightly through the window and mother and son were smiling, we get a feel for the close relationship they have for each other and their unconditional love. During this scene, the camera angles also showed the loving relationship the both of them shared. A prime example is when Walter looked up to his mother with an upward camera angle showing his admiration for his mother. While Christine looked at Walter with a downward camera angle to show her gratitude for her little boy. The exchanging of dialogue between the characters occurs next, which also gives us a sense of the strength of their connection.
We then see the mother and son exiting a trolley while the camera neatly closes in on their hands as they come together. A lot of framing by windows and doorways is shown in the film. One example is after the mother and son exit the trolley and stand by the school. The camera stays in the trolley and the two figures are perfectly framed by the trolley window. This is done to create a feeling of isolation or loneliness. The audience is therefore not let into a lot of personal moments like the one outside of the school which makes the audience wonder how the main character is feeling. The last part of the scene before her son is kidnapped occurs when Collins is preparing to leave for work. This particular moment is intensified by the dramatic camera movement. Collins firmly stands outside the house as her son glances from the window. As she slowly walks away, the camera follows her and pulls away from the house. From that distinct moment in the film, that shot would foreshadow the separation the mother and son would soon face.
The next scene is when Christine enters the house and discovers that her son is suddenly missing. The lighting in the house is very dark and gloomy, which describes how Collins is feeling at that moment. The camera then takes an omniscient view when we watch the high angle camera show Collins searching the house for her son. The emptiness of not only her house is represented with this angle but also how she is feeling at that moment when she finds out that her son is missing. As she calls the police to report the disappearance of her child, the camera takes on the omniscient view once again. The camera is placed right above her ear in which the receiver is held against. This angle is done to give an impression of someone watching Collins make the call. We find out that the authorities cannot do anything within the 24-hour window frame of his kidnapping and this foreshadows the police department’s inability in helping Ms. Collins’ find her son.
The next noteworthy scene is when Collins speaks at a conference addressing the media about the events concerning her son. In this specific scene the weather is wet and dreary and because of that, the lighting and coloring looks meek and cold. The use of ambient lighting in this scene reflects the trouble Collins is going through and the heartbreak she is feeling trying to convince the authorities that the boy who was given to her is not her son. The coloring is a blue tone which symbolizes a despairing mood.
Though the use of ambient lighting in the beginning of the film when Collins was with her son gave a gentle and complimentary effect, it progressively changed to a more unflattering effect as the movie unfolded. Editing during this scene involved a matched cut. First we see Christine and then the camera shows different views of the action around her. This editing technique was used to provide a sense of continuity and to highlight this important event in her life when she lets society know that the Los Angeles Police Department was not doing their job properly in discovering her son.
Another scene that incorporates many film elements is the scene in the police station when Collins continues to argue that the boy the authorities gave to her is not her son. During this scene the lighting was once again very murky and it was even raining. The frame was positioned by a window and though you could not see the rain, you could see the shadows of it dripping on the wall. Throughout much of the film and this scene, rain was another symbol of the despair Collins was going through at the time. The lead acting role of Angelina Jolie in this scene involved a lot of use of body language and expression. She held her hands to her head indicating the frustration she was feeling and that she could no longer keep her emotions bundled up inside.
And throughout much of the film, her emotions are not hidden and are displayed not only for entertainment, but they are used to provoke sympathy in the audience. The use of close up shots in this scene was also noticeable to connote the fear and anxiety Collins was feeling. While the long shots were used to connote the feeling of loneliness and separation. The key light in this scene was also shown above the police to show female disempowerment. During these times, females did not have the same rights as men and it was clearly represented in the movie through lighting. An example would be when a police officer would walk into the room, the room would suddenly appear darker and this showed the dominance they had over Collins.
The next significant scene is when Christine is admitted in the psychopathic ward by the authorities for relentlessly denying that the boy who was given back to her was not her son. The scene was very obscure and it was one of the lowest points in her life. But when she thought of her son during a positive train of thought, the sun would suddenly appear and the room would get brighter. This lighting choice symbolized her hope and that she would never give up because she felt her son was still alive. Throughout many of these important moments an editing choice of flashbacking was made to startle the audience. One particular flashback occurred to show multiple plots going on when the scene would out of nowhere travel to a ranch where all the boys were kept and the serial killer was about to pick one to kill.
This decision by the editor and the director gave the audience a harsh simultaneous view of the struggles Collins was going through and the tragedy these innocent boys were encountering. During this flashback there was also use of a canted angle in which shows an environment of a ranch where a man is walking out with a gun in his hand. This canted angle reflects the obscurity of the event as a little boy (Walter, Collins’ son) is seen running away from him. A hand-held camera movement is then used to follow the little boy running. This is used to make the audience feel the perspective of the person chasing him, which in turn makes the boy seem even more unprotected.
The last notable scenes that use film elements in which show the enduring quality of Collins is the scene at the prison and the very last scene when a sense of closure has finally come. When Collins has a private meeting with the serial killer to interrogate him about the killing of her son, the room is very dark but the key light is on Jolie. It is interesting to see how the lighting changed from the meeting with the authorities to this meeting because they no longer have dominance over Collins as the light is shown over her now. The scene evolves into the abductor not telling her the truth and he is dragged out of the cell while the camera pans away from Collins holding on to the prison bars.
This camera movement suggests that Christine is trapped in her own mental state of a prison and her hope for closure has still not arrived. But as the closing of the film presents itself, we receive closure when another boy tells his story of survival and lets the authorities and Collins know that without Walter, he wouldn’t be alive. As the movie concludes, the same non-diegetic music that was played during the span of the movie to symbolize sorrow and pain was played, but this time it was for a different reason. It was played to symbolize hope; the hope of Collins that she never gave up.
The Oscar nominated 2008 film Changeling is a film about female disempowerment, corruption in political hierarchies and about children and violence during the 1920s in Los Angeles, California. It involves many elements that the make the film what it is. From its cinematography, to its acting, to its production design, to its editing, the film wouldn’t be the same if it missed any of these filmic elements. It is because of the lighting and coloring that we get gentle and soft moments and dark and cold moments.
It is because of the music that we get emotions of tensions, despair and hope. It is because of the narrative that we get the journey of the determination of Christine Collins. It is because of the production design that we get the feel of how it really was in LA in the 1920s. And it is because of all of the individual choices and decisions for this film that it was able to express the theme or the lesson of this film, which is that hope and love can overcome all pain and suffering.