After directing three of the finest American films of the decade and one extraordinarily close near-miss, Clint Eastwood was probably due for a stumble. And that's really all that I think Changeling is, a stumble, and not even a bad one: there's quite a lot to love about Eastwood's treatment of the grim true story of Christine Collins, a woman whose son went missing in 1928 in Los Angeles. But there's also quite a lot of minor problems and not-so-minor problems that keep popping up and demanding attention, and the effect is like listening to a great violinist scraping the bow across the strings: for the most part it's quite beautiful, but the scratches are what stand out.

Opening with the old "spinning globe" Universal logo from the '30s (a lazy shorthand for "this is a movie indebted to vintage filmmaking styles" that has long been driven into the ground, but I'll allow it), Eastwood and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski fashion a tale that's equal parts melodrama, police procedural, serial killer thriller, courtroom drama and "bad cop" expose, and if you find yourself thinking that's quite a few different genres for one 2 hour and 20 minute film to handle, you've noticed the most obvious problem with Changeling: it's overstuffed with plot. At first, it purrs along very nicely, following single mother Collins (Angelina Jolie) as she returns home from work one Saturday to find that her son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) has vanished. The LAPD is initially worse than useless, but one day five months later, Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) announces that they've found the boy in DeKalb, Illinois. The only problem is that when he shows up, he's played by a new actor (Devon Conti) for the fairly good reason that he's not actually Walter Collins. Jones and the chief of police (Colm Feore) are insultingly dismissive of Christine's protestations, but once the local activist Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) gets involved, the LAPD starts to get very nervous of this woman who threatens to reveal the horribly corrupt incompetence underlying the force, and Jones manages to have her committed to the psycho ward.

There's not much that can be said against the story up to this point, bringing us somewhere near the midway point of the film, and this is where things start to get screwy: another cop, Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly) stumbles across a serial killer in his prosecution of a bog-standard deportation case, and in the ensuing investigation, it turns out that Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner) of Wineville, CA, very likely killed Walter; at the very least, he had the boy in his clutches for a time. But I'm getting a bit ahead of the plot, first there's the investigation, and that is why there's a 20-minute passage stuck right in the middle of the film where we hop between Christine in the loony bin, Ybarra making his inquiries, Rev. Briegleb making his inquiries, and Northcott realising that the game is up, and he need to flee back to Canada. This multitude of strands is handled with shocking ineptitude, both by the director and the writer, and the film never really recovers the narrative thread from then on, launching into a pair of courtroom stories that are cut together rather clumsily, and from there to a series of no less than three false endings.

Like I said, that's the obvious problem, but to my mind not an insurmountable one. Eastwood has a demonstrated ability to redeem occasionally clumsy screenplays (hello, Flags of Our Fathers), and there's nothing that a merciless trim job could have done to fix Changeling's script (though I don't think any editing in the world could have saved the movie - the Northcott material, all deadwood, is too heavily worked into the second half of the film to just be snipped out). Far more damning are all the little moments that just don't work very well, a far cry from the man who directed the shit out of Mystic River just five years ago (I still regard that film as containing very few directorial flaws, perhaps even none). Take, for instance, the moment when Ybarra listens to young Sanford Clark's (Eddie Alderson) story about Northcott. At one point, the camera pans from his face down his arm to his cigarette, which has become a pillar of ash: the detective is so horrified by the story that he forgot to smoke. That image is a really nice bit of visual storytelling, but the pan down is a bit too heavy-handed. And seconds later, when the ash falls and disintegrates in slow-motion? Borderline awful. Certainly moments like these do not outweigh the moments of directorial brilliance, but it's his flimsiest directing since Blood Work, at least. And Eastwood's sins extend beyond direction: his genial but forgettable score (he's gone 2-for-4 with film scores now, by my count - Flags was no great shakes either) commits the unforgivable error of evoking, with great success, the wrong era: those smooth brass sections call to mind the films of a solid 20 years after this film's setting.

Add in a few continuity errors that don't really derail the plot but call needless attention to themselves (Briegleb mentions the neighbors watching Collins's neighbors watching her get taken away from her house in a squad car; no, she actually walked to the station, and there were plenty of other ways to get that info to the reverend), and a few lines of dialogue that ring with anachronisms - like "serial killer", for instance - and one starts to think that Changeling is just plain sloppy in both conception and execution.

All those bad things being entirely true, what of the good things? For there are good things, and for starters, there's Eastwood's cinematographer for most of the '00s, Tom Stern. It's become a bit of a joke to note that their collaborations are getting increasingly monochromatic (enough so that some people actually believed Letters from Iwo Jima to be a black-and-white film), but that doesn't change the fact that the two men are good compliments to each other - Stern's harsh lighting and washed-out palette ties in neatly with Eastwood's formally classic minimalism. Changeling is relatively more colorful than their last few films, but it still spends a great deal of time in full noir regalia, even in places where chiaroscuro lighting oughtn't work, like outside on a sunny day (if there was one thing that fully justified the entire movie to me, it would be the way that Stern and Eastwood keep Jolie's eyes perpetually shadowed under the brim of her très-1920s hat). This is at heart a very nasty story being told, and it is shot in a particularly harsh way, easily Stern's most contrast-heavy film since Million Dollar Baby.

Then, there's the cast. Almost uniformly, everyone gives a better performance than the role they were given: every character is one-dimensional except for Christine, who has two dimensions, and nearly every performance adds a full dimension. Jolie is particularly excellent in what by rights should have been a tearful series of "WHERE IS MY BOY?" Oscar-ready clips, but she only really has two, and one of them works much better than it did in the trailer, largely because she is screaming at a nine-year-old. Other than that, the whole performance is about holding back, proving to those vicious asshole men that just because she's a woman, that doesn't make her fragile, no matter how much she actually wishes she could be. It's not Jolie's best work, but as in her best work she manages to clamp down the degree to which she is "international superstar Angelina Jolie", no matter how hard her lips, and the bright period lipstick they're sporting, try to betray her.

Her performance is the centerpiece of a film that's much to schizophrenic to add up to anything in particular, but knows where the beating heart of the story lies: we must sympathise completely with Christine Collins for Changeling to work. Eastwood knows this; he gives Jolie many loving close-ups just to make sure that we know it too. It's not quite melodramatic enough (or at all) to properly recall the women's pictures from the 1930s that are at least theoretically its models, the film is at least a success as a study of a feral mother, whatever its other shortcomings.