I can imagine a hypothetical scenario wherein Roger Michell, Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin—the director and writers, respectively, of Changing Lanes—sit in a room smiling. They know they’ve created a film with deep and unsettling moral questions, and they know that marketing people have no idea how to sell a film based on deep and unsettling moral questions. So they smile, knowing that the studio will sell Changing Lanes as a gritty cat-and-mouse tale of escalating vengeance.
“Yes,” Michell says with a chuckle in this imaginary situation, “they’re playing right into our hands.”
Changing Lanes offers one of the sneakiest film experiences of the year, because it knows exactly how its audience is going to react to its basic concept. It uses the conventions of a genre, then jerks them out from under you. Disguising it as a simple thriller, the makers of Changing Lanes have actually created a meditation on nothing less than the social contract itself.
But first, the marketing-friendly premise: One Good Friday morning on New York’s FDR Drive, a fender bender takes place. Hotshot young attorney Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) is on his way to court to file a document that will seal control of a dead millionaire’s charitable foundation for his firm. He cuts off Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson), a recovering alcoholic also on his way to court for a custody hearing with his estranged wife. The fuming Doyle is left stranded by the too-busy Gavin, but he’s also left with the crucial document Gavin needs. Thus begins a downward spiral of retribution, as each man becomes determined to deprive the other of what he needs most.
It’s clear, of course, with whom the audience will sympathize. Scummy lawyer Gavin is running some kind of scam, while everyman Doyle is a guy just trying to put his life back together and do the right thing. The two men exchange body blows, but we’re certain the combatants are not on equal moral footing. Gavin attacks callously; Doyle responds righteously.
And that’s the trap Changing Lanes lays for a viewer used to films with black-and-white moral universes. The film sets us up to whoop for Doyle’s vigilante sense of justice, as when he shouts down and eventually assaults two casually racist barroom loudmouths. But eventually it becomes clear that Doyle’s responses are just as indefensible as Gavin’s, while Gavin himself begins to struggle with the consequences of his actions. A story about a good guy and a bad guy evolves into a story about which guy is less bad.
What Michell, Taylor and Tolkin have crafted in Changing Lanes is an ethical thriller about the ways we self-justify our leaps outside the bounds of civil behavior. In a scene perfectly directed by Michell, a shady “fixer” (Dylan Baker, in a remarkable five-minute performance) prepares to obliterate Doyle’s computerized financial history at Gavin’s request. He chats sweetly on the phone with his young daughter, a piece of grade-school art by his desk. It’s a wonderfully creepy moment, loaded with one man’s disconnect between his love for his own family and his smiling willingness to destroy another man’s family. Changing Lanes challenges the ease with which we do others harm, oblivious to anything outside the bubble of our own lives.
It’s fascinating stuff, and it could have been even more fascinating with another actor going toe-to-toe with Jackson. As Doyle, Jackson perfectly captures unfocused rage at society with an ambiguous grace that exposes Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down for the shallow exploitation of put-upon white-guy angst that it was. Affleck, on the other hand, doesn’t have nearly the gravity his role requires, his pensive moments losing much of their force. If there’s one thing Affleck’s on-screen persona doesn’t scream, it’s “introspective.”
Changing Lanes winds up with a too-pat resolution that in some ways lets one of the characters off the hook, but it’s also easy to understand on a practical level. One crowd-pleasing moment seems a fair concession for a film that dares to indict viewers for being pleased at things that should disturb them. People will come to Changing Lanes expecting to root for the everyman. That’s the bait. Somewhere, after making the switch that shakes up your sense of cinematic justice, the filmmakers are still smiling.