This is the sort of story that we wish we could say was completely made up.
On March 10, 1928, Christine Collins—a single mom who works as a telephone operator—comes home to find her Los Angeles-area house empty. Walter, her 9-year-old son, is gone.
She scours the neighborhood. She calls the police. And the search goes on for months, followed closely by the California press. The Los Angeles Police Department, dogged by charges of corruption and ineptitude, is under tremendous pressure to close the case.
Then a miracle happens. Walter Collins turns up in Illinois—alive, apparently unhurt and ready to come home. The LAPD organizes a well-publicized reunion at the train station, eager for a much-needed photo op.
But the miracle instantly turns into a nightmare when Christine sees the boy.
"That's not my son," she tells police captain J.J. Jones.
"I'm sure you're mistaken," Jones says.
Christine insists that she'd know her own son when she saw him, but Jones convinces her to "take him home on a trial basis." You're just in shock, he tells her, and after all, the boy's been gone for a few months. Maybe he's changed.
Christine isn't crazy. She's just a mom. And like most any mother, she'll do anything to save her son.
"You have to understand that my son is my life," she says as she pleads with the changeling to reveal his true identity. "He's all I have." Even once the doppelganger's ruse is revealed and most folks come to believe Walter is dead, she stubbornly searches, using her work breaks to call missing persons bureaus across the country. Audiences are told in a postscript that she never gave up her search.
Christine would surely want to rescue Walter even if he was a bit of a brat. But we learn that Walter's a selfless kid who risks his own life to save that of another little boy. That boy's found seven years later, safe and sound, saying he came out of hiding because "I really miss my mom. I really miss my dad. I just want to go home."
Christine finds an ally in the Rev. Gustav Briegleb, a Presbyterian pastor who uses his pulpit and radio program to rail against corruption and lawlessness within the LAPD. While Christine's focus is narrow, Briegleb is a big-picture guy: He believes that Christine's story can help bring reform to the police department. He offers support, organizes protests, links her up with a powerful lawyer and becomes her primary advocate.
Before Briegleb meets Christine, he asks his congregation to pray for her. And as he leads her through a mass of protestors picketing in her defense, he says that the "Lord works in mysterious ways, Mrs. Collins." He tries to comfort her by assuring her that if the boy is dead, he's waiting to be reunited with her in heaven.
Other characters are thinking about a different eternal locale, however. Murderer Gordon Northcott tries to get right with God after he's captured by police. He asks to meet with Christine to confess that, yes, he did kill her child. But when she arrives, he recants his confession, saying, "I don't want to go to hell with a lie on my lips." A young teen boy named Sanford Clark—who has been forced to help Northcott commit his heinous crimes—does confess because, he says, "I don't want to go to hell for killing kids."
As he's led to the gallows, Northcott pleads with bystanders to say a prayer for him. And then as he stands on the scaffolding with a black hood covering his face, he begins to quietly sing "Silent Night." A table at his old farmhouse is covered with rosaries and an open Bible.
The ugly issue of pedophilia plagues Changeling. But in keeping with the 1920s and '30s reticence to talk about such things, the film barely alludes to it.
The stand-in for Walter Collins was apparently accompanied by a drifter in Illinois, and the police suggest that those dark days "Walter" spent with the drifter may have caused some of his apparent personality and even physical changes. This case is most boldly presented when Christine tells officials that the changeling is circumcised: They respond by saying that the drifter must've done the circumcision himself.
The police eventually answer Christine's protests that they're trying to pass off a strange boy as her own by tossing her into a psychiatric ward. Nurses hose Christine down when she's admitted, and audiences see glimpses of her breasts and other parts of her naked body (from the side). Nurses then do a vaginal inspection, which partially takes place onscreen.
Stories are told—both verbally and visually—of kidnappings, imprisonments (in a chicken coop) and killings. Clark experiences a flashback in which he sees a blood-covered Northcott killing a boy. The scene is shown from the victim's point of view, leaving audiences to stare straight into Northcott's crimson-streaked face and looming body as he holds the ax aloft, then brings it down directly on the camera. Later, again in flashback mode, Northcott drags a struggling boy into a nearby room. We see Northcott's shadow raise an ax and plunge it into the deeper shadows—presumably the boy.
Clark tells a detective that Northcott may have killed 20 boys, but admits that he lost count along the way. Digging for bodies, police uncover ribs, pelvic bones and a tiny shoe. A detective and Clark struggle. Northcott fires a shotgun at some fleeing boys.
Years earlier, the LAPD created a 50-man "gun squad" that was officially tasked with bringing criminals to justice "dead, not alive." And we see this squad in action, mowing down people in the city's streets and alleyways.
Walter tells Christine that a boy in class hit him. "Did you hit him back?" Christine asks, and when Walter says he did, Christine replies, "Good." She taught Walter, apparently, to "never start a fight; always finish it." (Later we find out that Walter did start the fight.)
Christine throws a plate of food against the wall. She and another woman struggle with nurses and doctors in the asylum, and a doctor gets punched in the face. The woman who delivered the blow undergoes a disturbing session of shock therapy for her impudence: She's strapped to the table and given a mouth guard so she doesn't bite off her tongue—then her body goes rigid as electrical current rockets through it.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Christine is force-fed drugs in the psychiatric ward. Capt. Jones and several others smoke.
Changeling is painful to watch. It tears at your gut. It's violent. It observes some of the ugliest behavior mankind can conceive. And ...
"It's all a true story," scriptwriter J. Michael Straczynski told Time magazine. "Every bit of it. We wanted to go from 'Based on a True Story' to 'A True Story' in the credits. To do that, I had to work with Universal Studio's legal department and go through every single scene and provide attribution."
Director Clint Eastwood actually leaves some of the story's most horrific parts outside the frame. The real Gordon Northcott sexually assaulted his accomplice and raped his victims before killing them—abuse only hinted at on the screen. "I tried to show the brutalizing in a way that wasn't as brutal as it really was," Eastwood told the Los Angeles Times.
He also takes great pains to highlight a mother's dedication to her child and a minister's quest to clean up his town.
But Eastwood's restraint is relative: Changeling still revolves around a psychopath who kidnaps and hacks up little boys in a chicken coop. We don't see the full scope of these children's pain. But we see enough. More than enough.