Los Angeles, 1928. For five months, single mother Christine Collins is distraught over son Walter's disappearance. The scandal-plagued L.A.P.D. hopes to turn the tide of public opinion by returning the boy to her at a flashbulb-popping press event. When the strong-willed young mother insists that the boy is not hers, the cops label her delusional, an unfit mother, and lock her away in a mental ward.

"Changeling" is a brilliant, demanding film, a mystery-cum-character study about which we finally have to make up our own minds. It employs subject matter familiar from many other films -- serial killings, official corruption, capital punishment -- in challenging ways, requiring us to think beyond our stock responses. It is a tragedy with numerous villains, and a story of redemption with several heroes. It's a piercing look at evil in various forms, with a central fiend as startling as Hannibal Lecter in "Silence of the Lambs" and lesser devils who hide behind badges and medical degrees. It's a hymn to virtue, fueled by religious righteousness in some cases, and sheer integrity in others.

The story is fascinating for many reasons, not least because it's such a contrast to standard mysteries. "Changeling" is directed by Clint Eastwood with a marriage of artistic restraint and emotional clout. He withholds showing us anything overtly disturbing for ages, conjuring tension with suggestiveness until repressed feelings erupt.

Angelina Jolie is the strong emotional center of the film. Her performance as the distraught mother is so driven, so sensitive to the many different facets of a complex personality, that we feel an intuitive understanding of her. She is convincingly brave and compellingly frightened. The movie is mostly told from Christine's point of view, yet it doesn't let her off the hook for the events that led to Walter's disappearance. Instead it argues that even a loving mother can make decisions that spiral into tragedy. Jolie makes Christine's unspoken feelings of guilt a key to her later tenacity. "Changeling" is bleak about the fragility of life without being unwatchably pessimistic.

It's impossible to not be impressed by Eastwood's mature craftsmanship. He gives us the look of old Los Angeles, its streetcars and flapper fashions and Model T's, but the film wears its period lightly. Observe the way Eastwood blocks scenes, patiently letting the camera linger on the actors, never cutting until it's appropriate. Look at the sensitivity in the scenes between Jolie and the women working in her office. Who would have predicted that Dirty Harry would have the delicacy of feeling to show that supportive sorority enfolding a sister in need?

Eastwood keeps the volcanic John Malkovich at a simmer in the role of a crusading radio evangelist who takes up Christine's cause, his shrill anger venting only when it's tactically useful to scare an adversary. When the film travels into frightening territory, Eastwood is unflinching. There are horrific moments of bloodshed, and equally ghastly official retribution. A monster gets the punishment he deserves, but Eastwood doesn't savor his final moments of suffering, instead making him an unexpected figure of pity. When this uncanny film is over, you feel that you have looked both good and evil in the face.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186