(Universal) Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Colm Feore, Amy Ryan, Michael Kelly, Jason Butler Harner, Gatatlin Griffith, Devon Conti, Frank Harris. Directed by Clint Eastwood
As parents, our job is to protect our children. We can’t be with them 24-7 and bad things can happen even when we’re around. The worst thing that can happen to a parent is said to be the death of a child; however, worse still might be not knowing.
Christine Collins (Jolie) is a single mother, something of a rarity in the Los Angeles of 1928. Her husband was incarcerated, but she and her son Walter (Griffith) were getting along just fine. Christine worked as a telephone operator and was sure to be promoted shortly. They lived in a small bungalow on a quiet little street. They went to the movies and had ice cream afterwards. Life was good.
Unfortunately, Christine got called into work one Saturday, forcing her to disappoint her son Walter as they had plans to attend the movies. She kissed him on the head, promised him they would go to Santa Monica Pier the next day and nagged him to stay inside until she got back.
When she got back that evening, Walter was gone. Nobody on the quiet street had seen him go. Frantic, she called the police who assured her he was probably somewhere in the neighborhood and he would surely be back before morning. All that long night she waited, but he never returned. Finally, she went to the police station where Detective Lester Ybarra (Kelly) took her statement and promised to look for the boy. Days turned into weeks and still there was no sign of him.
The case was becoming an embarrassment for the Los Angeles Police Department. Already under fire for corruption and incompetence, pressure was coming from Chief Davis (Feore) on down to Captain J.J. Jones (Donovan) to resolve the case. Finally, several months later, they finally caught a break; a boy in DeKalb, Illinois claimed to be Walter Collins. He was put on a train for Los Angeles, with the press invited to witness the happy reunion.
Except that when Christine Collins laid eyes on the boy claiming to be her son, she knew it wasn’t him. For one thing, he was three inches shorter than Walter was. When she took him to the dentist, his records didn’t match. When she took him to school, none of the classmates or teachers knew him, nor did he know who they were.
When she expressed her misgivings to the Police, they called her insane. The case was closed and the Police wished no further embarrassment. They tried to sweep it under the rug, but Christine Collins wasn’t the sort of woman to go into the night quietly. She railed publically and vocally, with the aid of crusading radio preacher Gustav Briegleb (Malkovich) who had been calling attention to corruption within the LAPD for years and saw this case as the crystallization of everything he had been warning his listeners about.
The lengths Christine Collins would have to go to, the tribulations she would undergo and the facts of the case of Walter Collins became this extraordinary story, all the more remarkable because the events were true. Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, best known for creating the science fiction universe of “Babylon 5,” meticulously crafts a story so richly detailed and gripping that you are on the edge of your seat for the two hours plus running time of the movie.
Eastwood also meticulously recreates the Los Angeles of 1928, and wisely allows the story to unfold simply, without calling attention to technique. He allows the story to be presented organically; you’re barely aware that he’s directing at all, which is to my mind the mark of a great director. Even so, it’s a great looking movie.
Jolie delivers perhaps the best performance of her career. Although she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Girl, Interrupted, she carries this movie on her back. Her desperation and despair show through her civil façade, which cracks the longer the story goes on. At no time do you not believe the emotional strain the character is under. She got nominated for Best Actress for this role, and although she would lose to Kate Winslet, there is certainly an argument that this was the superior performance.
There are some grisly scenes that are going to be disturbing to people who are sensitive to such things. The last portion of the movie does a complete turn, and you would be well-advised to be aware of it. There is a scene where Detective Ybarra questions a young boy who lived at the Wineville Chicken Ranch of Gordon Northcott (Harner) that is as terrifying a scene as you will ever witness. These are the kind of images that induce nightmares.
Eastwood is approaching 80 years old but he seems to be hitting his creative stride, producing one amazing movie after another. It is hard to watch in places, granted, but that is due to the subject matter more than the director. Those who love quality movies should seek this out if they haven’t already seen it and even then, it bears repeated viewings.
WHY RENT THIS: A gripping true-life crime story that has twists and turns so bizarre and so terrible that nobody could possibly make it up. Great performances from Jolie and Malkovich lead a very solid cast.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the scenes depicting violence to children are very disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing scenes of children in jeopardy as well as the discovery of their remains; as good as this is, it is definitely NOT for kids.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer J. Michael Straczynski heard about the case of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders from a source at Los Angeles City Hall where the records for the case were about to be destroyed. Instead, Straczynski took the records himself and became so engrossed in the story that he exhaustively researched the case; each event in the film occurs as cited in legal documents referring to the case and dialogue is often verbatim from court transcripts. He wrote the first draft in only eleven days and Eastwood agreed to direct within hours of reading it.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray version utilizes Universal’s U-Control interactive features which overlays the photographs of the actual people being portrayed, as well as newspaper events of the actual events and period photographs of the locations utilized in the film. It’s really impressive stuff, especially for a history buff like me.
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
TOMORROW: Ghost Town