Sunday, 6 June 2010

Scene On A Sunday: Changeling

I’m still not sure why I appreciated Eastwood’s Changeling so much. I’m not too fond of the man as it were, and the film was rather poorly received. Still, I was impressed with it (it was my second review on the blog). I felt Jolie was deserving of the accolades she received, but if there was one part of the film I could have singled out alone it would have been Jason Butler Harner’s work as serial murderer Gordon Stewart Northcott. Everyone went wild in 2008 for dual villains in Milk and The Dark Knight and Harner’s Northcott would make it all a good threesome. It’s a slight performance, but one that haunts; and none more than his final scene – the hanging.

It begins with the shot from above as he descends.
I’ll admit, it looks generic enough as Northcott is led into the execution chamber by rhe officers.
But it’s the awareness on Harner’s face that always gets me.
The man has a way with expressions that’s most chilling. He’s a murderer, and yet he looks like a naughty schoolboy read to receive his punishment - one that you could feel sorry for.
Warden reads the charges, and really can we get any more clichéd than a hideous warden? The Grim Reaper I presume – but, alas, Eastwood never was one for subtlety.
But, back to Harner. I’m always moved to wonder just what the motive was behind his characterisation. It’s almost sad when he turns to the chaplain:
I kept clean after I confessed, Reverend…just like I said I would.
I think even the chaplain is a bit disconcerted, even if he nods resolutely. I wonder how Sarandon’s Helen Prejean would have dealt with this murderer.
Will it…will it hurt?
Harner delivers the line so randomly I always feel as if he’s adlibbing, which is a good thing. We don’t get a studied portrayal of a dying man, but an almost organic degradation.
Please…not so fast…don’t make me walk so fast.
It’s here that I really have to champion Eastwood. His penchant for overemphasis works brilliantly as we get that sense of foreboding. The walk up the steps (if you can call it a walk) is just so tense….and that shot of the rope…
Just seeing it gives me chills.
Thirteen steps…thirteen steps…but I didn’t touch all of ‘em, you bastards…I didn’t touch all of ‘em.
I always like to think that Northcott is getting delusional and is thinking of the steps as the murdered boys, but I’m always looking for subtext even when it’s not there. Still I start feeling a little bit sorry for him, I can’t explain what Nortchott’s motives were, but with Harner he manages to seem more than just a murderer.
He does look rather deranged, though.
…but still, ridiculous and pathetic.
A prayer! Please, somebody, say a prayer for me!
This shot is just chilling.
The executioner approaches the handle of the trapdoor as Northcott continues in what has to be the eeriest rendition of a Christmas tune.
Silent night…holy night…all is calm…all is bright…round yon virgin mother and child…holy infant so tender and mild…
Just what is Christine thinking?
Though I love her throughout, Jolie is at her lowest when dealing directly with Northcott. She’s unsure what to make of Christine’s reactions towards him (the script doesn’t help her any). I like the look there, though, what is she thinking? It's the sort of unreadable look that seems real.
We pause, and then the Grim Reaper decides to look at his watch.
What exactly is up with timing executions to the second? Will they be sued for digressions? And just then the trap door opens and the deed is done.
Few execution scenes manage to be so grisly and it depends mainly on the excellence of Harner. I cannot overemphasise how much this performance impresses me. I’d have given a nomination based on this scene only. What skill.


Simon said...

Excellent run-down. I always have mized feelings for these kind of scenes, where it all seems to go down as cliche, and I end up flashing back to the first one I ever saw in Capote. I'll have to look at this again, see what you mean.

Robert said...

Oh my, this scene haunted me for days. I also liked this movie more than most, and I would have given him a nomination as well...yikes. So powerful!

Danny King said...

I love this film, and this scene is one of the highlights. I think the best part about Harner's performance is that he doesn't go over the top in order to be creepy; he just is creepy.

If I had to single out another scene from this film, it would be the "confession" scene of the boy, who is played by Eddie Alderson. Like Harner, this is a slight, but very memorable performance.

Danny King said...

P.S. Where were you able to find all of those pictures?

RC said...

Nice run down in a creepy film - creepy scene

nickis_movies said...

I LOVED this movie.
What I dislike is how people can hate an actor because of their private life and ignore their actual fantastic performance. Obviously I am talking about Jolie here...

Heather said...

Great movie. I'm not a huge Eastwood fan either, and I'm generally reluctant to sit down and watch his movies. I found this better than Mystic River myself. Jolie was incredible and the story was damn powerful. Great build up of this scene Andrew!

Yojimbo_5 said...

"Changeling" is a great movie from a fine director doing some of his best nuanced work the old-fashioned way: by telling a story, not conducting an editing exercise. This actor is good, but he's one of many in this creepy, creepy film about institutional oppression and victimization. There's Jolie, and Malkovich's subtle performance (so subtle you forget he's in it), Michael Kelly's "good" detective...but my favorite performance is Eddie Alderson's—the kid who helped Northcott in his crimes—the interrogation scene between him and Kelly is nothing short of riveting.

The reason Northcott is focussing on the thirteen steps is because he's focussing on everything--these are his last few moments of life. He didn't get to take the steps himself, he was carried so he wouldn't delay the execution, and for him, that's taking away grains of sand from a draining hour-glass. Irony, of course, because he feels like he's being victimized, when he gave no such sentiments while brutally murdering his own victims--he took away their rights, their lives...everything. I didn't feel sympathy, but a cackling satisfaction that he should be reduced to so pathetic a figure, after claiming for himself the ultimate power of life and death.

I always remember an episode of "Hill Street Blues" where an inmate to be executed the next morning is upset at how slow the legal system works and he has no time left. Attempting to mollify him, his counsellor says, "You should try and get some sleep..." and the Dead Man cries out: "Why?!"

Alex in Movieland said...

I thought his performance was kind of too much. But I guess that's just me. :)

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

simon i totally get you, but i don't think changeling goes overboard like some tend to.

robert, rc definitely a haunting one.

danny alderson is excellent too. i wonder where someone so young went to, to deliver that confession scene. very nuanced. (ps. screen captures from the DVD)

nickis duly noted, and fully agree.

heather mystic river will always be my fave, but this comes second (yes, before unforgiven

yojimbo love the long comment. excellent thoughts.

alex i know you're not a fan:)

SuzyBee said...

Loved the run down and the pictures. I just find this scene so exhausting to watch and Jason Butler Harner plays it so well.

I recently read the script to Changling, which included the scene in the prison cell, which wasn't in the film. Gordon tell Christine Collins that there are thirteen steps to gallows, as 13 is unlucky and helps make you go to hell when you die, but he is going to outsmart them. I did notice in one scene at the foot of the gallows he is counting them.

Rob said...

Eastwood is an extremely subtle director, always has been. It's one of the key qualities that has made his movies over the decades so pleasurable & ironically it's the very quality that critics spent decades attacking him for. It's entirely predictable to see the same people now shamelessly reworking that dismissal into 'Oh, he's such a heavy-handed director' as a way of dealing with the overwhelming acclaim his work in the last decade has generated.

In fact Clint's directorial style really hasn't changed at all except that if anything it's become even more austere, more stripped down as the years have gone by. Take a look at Million Dollar Baby. That movie is an exquisite exercise in restraint & Changeling is no different. To describe Eastwood as heavy-handed in the face of such evidence to the contrary is not only laughably unconvincing but tragically suggests you haven't the slightest idea about the director you're writing about. Sorry about that Andrew, but really, somebody had to say it.

And what does '.. I’m not too fond of the man as it were,' have to do with anything? Honestly, what a bizarre thing to say. Is it a prerequisite to like Eastwood as a person in order to appreciate his movies? Or is that the way you justify everyone else's fondness for Eastwood the director? If so I gotta tell you it's not a theory likely to take flight!

Anyway - Changeling, I think it's a great movie. Jolie is terrific, as is Harner, but frankly so is everyone. Eastwood does an exceptional job at juggling the various narrative strands while ensuring that each always come back to Jolie's search for her son. Changeling also very cleverly avoids the trap that so many period movies fall into - Road to Perdition being a prime example - wherein the sets & costumes swamp everything else. Changeling has great recreations of Los Angeles but because Eastwood keeps such a tight handle on the story & the characters you aren't distracted by the period detail after the first couple of minutes.

I liked the tone of the film as well. One can imagine how shrill & OTT Changeling would have been had a director like Martin Scorsese or Oliver Stone made it. The hysteria & heavy-handedness would have been overwhelming. But under Eastwood's guidance it delivers this feeling of a lament for Christine Collins. There's an element of hope in the final scene (wisely IMO, without it the film would be just too bleak) but it is essentially a lament. It's also, I think, suffused with a kind of cold anger at what this woman was put through. Very Eastwood.

As for Changeling's critical reception two things are worth pointing out. One is that although it got some mixed reviews in the US, it also got raves from some of the big hitters such as Variety's Todd McCarthy. The other is that Changeling got far more enthusiastic critical reviews abroad & its foreign box office take was more than twice what it did domestically. Personally, I suspect that an awful lot of the American negativity toward Changeling was actually a dislike of a tabloid staple like Angelina Jolie making a 'serious' movie. Well that & an irrational dislike of Eastwood in some quarters of the blogosphere that in some cases verges on the deranged. Not that I'm saying anyone who dislikes an Eastwood film is deranged, mind!

thrummer1953 said...

I think what is so remarkable about Harner's performance here is the way he conveys his terror such that he makes the viewers feel it almost as though they were being hanged as well.And the cold,clinical & inexorable mechanics of the execution only add to the atmosphere of building dread.
Eastwood & Harner created a riveting & hauntingly memorable scene which was deeply affecting despite the fact we knew Northcott richly deserved what he got.

Anonymous said...

I think the whole hanging scene was done to create the feeling of a hanging with witnesses present all of those sitting in the theater as well. The entrance to the room, the mounting of the gallows, standing on the trap while the hood and noose are positioned, his singing and the executioner pulling the lever, the trap falls and the body plummets down to the end of the rope and the final struggles with his feet kicking.
It could be said he received a suspended sentence.

Anonymous said...

The reason for the precise timing on an execution is because there is always a chance for a stay or reprieve until the last second.