OK, I just wanted to see if that would get past my editor, but that does describe the trajectory of the film. At first, I was put off by the pedestrian filmmaking: Every shot looked like it was borrowed from an uninspired inspirational film from the '80s. The re-created 1920 Los Angeles looks like it just rolled off the assembly line, and the pace of the opening sequence was pointlessly slow. Oh, and the music sucked: manipulative strings accompanied by Satie-esque piano, or, in other words, what people who've never made movies think movie music should sound like. Yawnsies!
But wait! The characters are also one-dimensional! OK, wait some more, because after director Clint Eastwood (who, to his credit, has actually directed movies before) gets the slow opener out of the way, things get quite taut.
Angelina Jolie plays Christine Collins, single mother of 9-year-old Walter. She returns from work one day to find Walter is missing. The Los Angeles Police Department, which, at that time, if we're to believe Changeling, was essentially an organized- crime syndicate, doesn't much care. But the next day, they send some officers over, and her missing white son becomes a media celebrity comparable to a missing white woman in contemporary America.
Much of this is due to the efforts of the Rev. Gustav Briegleb, who's played quite perfectly by John Malkovich. Briegleb broadcasts his sermons on local radio, and has been crusading against the corruption in the L.A. police department. So, basically, he epitomizes goodness. Meanwhile, police Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) epitomizes evil. He does a mustache-twirling routine that is fun to watch, and he has acting chops, but he's stuck with a role that lacks depth.
The unidimensional characters would be a problem if Eastwood were trying to make a larger point, but if he's just making a thriller, then they're part of the genre and can be used with impunity. The problem is that about halfway through the film, the thriller ends, and Eastwood starts trying to make a larger point. But he's stuck with a bunch of caricatures, so the ending bogs down like an undermanned invasion of an oil-producing nation.
Still, for a while, there's good stuff as Jolie hunts for her son. The police bring her a boy who's not her son, try to convince her that it is her son, and then lock her in an insane asylum when she's all, "Seriously, thanks for this little boy, but he's like 3 inches shorter than my son, has different dental records and, also, I didn't give birth to him."
All of that is in the trailer, so I'm not giving anything away by mentioning it, but what now follows is a mild, but necessary, spoiler: Part of the story involves the tale of a man who kidnaps children, stuffs them in a chicken coop and then, one by one, kills them with an ax. Graphically. With on-screen blood-spatter and screams.
It's horribly disturbing, especially since the audience didn't pay to see Saw V (except for the people who accidentally wandered in after paying to see Saw V). I just think if you're going to make a movie about an ax-wielding child-murderer, you should probably mention that you're making a movie about an ax-wielding child-murderer, and not present advertisements that make your film look like it's not at all about the graphic depiction of ax-wielding and child-murdering.
After the ax murderer (Jason Butler Harner) appears, the film slows down, and while there's a sort-of stirring tale about the quest for justice, the payoff comes about 20 minutes before the end of the film, and it isn't as strongly earned as it would have been if the characters had displayed some depth, or if the story didn't feel so manipulative.
Interestingly, Eastwood has hired pretty much every white character actor in Hollywood, and the film is populated with refugees from sitcoms and canceled one-hour TV dramas. Everyone who appears on screen gives you a, "Hey, I know that guy!" feeling. If you're into obscure actor trivia, this film is a goldmine.
Otherwise, I can't strongly recommend seeing it in the theater. The cinematography is competently executed, but extremely derivative and pedestrian. (If you're into that kind of thing, you might get a chuckle out of the clichéd low-angle shot on Jolie's face as she runs around the neighborhood searching for her lost son.) The dialogue is good; it was written by J. Michael Straczynski, of Babylon 5 fame, and he's usually a long way from awful. But the story overreaches, and Eastwood should have found the film's natural ending about 40 minutes shy of its current length.