Changing Lanes

Gen X Review Changing LanesSparks fly as metal grinds metal. One car is driven into a concrete island, finally coming to rest with a wicked hiss. Sometimes an accident is just another name for pushing your breaks to their breaking point, and sometimes the only thing to do is change lanes at 80 miles per hour and hope for the best.

The new film Changing Lanes is a dark, visceral rollercoaster ride through the winding tunnels, lost roads and secret passageways of two men. Violence is cathartic sometimes, despite what Rousseauian hippie factions would have us think, and sometimes the only way to change is to deliver yourself -- a bloody, screaming, thoroughly unhappy infant creature -- from some horrific experience of disharmony and danger.

When two cars unexpectedly collide on the FDR expressway in New York, their drivers are propelled into an increasingly uncomfortable world of violence and revenge. Their chance encounter forces these two men to face their darkest sides, re-examine what they believe in and eventually confront some unpleasant truths about themselves.

Gavin Bank (Ben Afflict) is a young partner in a powerful law firm. He’s the sort of guy who feigns ignorance and naiveté rather than facing the truth of his actions. The accident occurs minutes before he is due in court, where he is to present important papers proving that his law firm has legal rights over a large trust. Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson), on the other hand, is a working-class black man who is due in court himself: Only his case is a divorce proceeding and his objectives are intensely personal.

Gavin doesn’t initially even deign to talk to Doyle at the scene of the crime. Instead he phones his secretary and tells her to relay the message that he’s going to be late. When he finishes his call he offers Doyle a blank check to cover damages. He then traces off to his meeting, unaware that he has left one of his files with Doyle. Doyle’s car is wrecked, his tires are flat and by the time he’s made it to his meeting it has begun raining. In the court room the judge berates him for his tardiness right before denying him visitation rights with his children.

This is not his best day.

It isn’t until he’s on the street again that he realizes he has Gavin’s file. And when Gavin realizes that Doyle has the important documents and is not willing to hand them over for any amount of money (“I want my time back,” Doyle screams at Gavin as he coasts by him on the street), the young Wall Street lawyer becomes brutal. The violence escalates and intensifies until both men are using every weapon in their disposal to hurt, maim or kill the other.

Changing Lanes takes place in an urban despot where people only interact during the occasional collision and any connection is purely an accident. Our lives intersect only when they clash, only when we scrape up against one another on the road or bump into one another on the sidewalk, only when the fabric of order begins to unravel and our baser, more violent instincts begin to emerge.
Time and space cross at these moments, marking us forever. But these traumatic events don’t just leave a scar, they also suggest the possibility of reconfiguring our lives, adjusting our perspectives to accommodate a new world view. That fender-bender dent is more than a blemish. It’s also a reminder of how dangerous, uncontrollable, unexpected and transformative life is and how quickly everything call fall apart.

Chaos is just something that happens when we give up control. William Hurt, playing an Alcoholics Anonymous mentor, tells Doyle that he broke the covenant not to let things go nuts when he set aside cultural mores to pursue revenge against Gavin. We should, however, thank god for accidents, since they offer the possibility of things outside of our control. In a world of oppressive control mechanisms -- stop lights, video surveillance cameras, high-tech identity theft -- it’s a blessing to find that there’s more to the world than merely our social constructs.

The rules can be changed by those in the upper echelons of power, however, and at one point Gavin turns to a professional hacker to persuade Doyle to turn over the file. To those in positions of power, people are mostly just a collection of numbers: Social security numbers, birthdays, credit cards, license plate numbers. Once these numbers are wiped clear, we cease to exist. “You are now a spirit without a body,” Gavin tells Doyle, sounding very much like a modern-day sorcerer. I don’t know about you, but my social security number doesn’t make me feel very secure, especially when so much depends of those nine little digits.

I don’t particularly like Ben Affleck, but he does a fine job with Gavin. Facing difficult truths about himself and the firm he represents takes a huge toll on the man and Affleck is convincing as the poor, wounded boy-child. Gavin pouts considering the awful truth of his awful little world where lawyers have no respect for the law and marriages are held together by tiny dollar signs.

The firm’s mantra, chanted by Gavin’s father-in-law and mentor (played by Sydney Pollack), goes: Lie, steal, cheat and go home go your wife and both of your petty infidelities. These are the kinds of guys who have no moral problem with destroying men’s lives every now and again because they believe they “do more good than bad” at the end of the day -- The sort of S.O.B.s who justify dirty lawyer jokes.
Jackson is absolutely mesmerizing as the middle-aged black man facing a world of utter chaos and indifference.  He isn’t so much driven to do the things he does as he is unleashed and allowed to articulate his frustrations. A man of quiet and restrained anger, when Doyle does blow his top he does it in a big, scary way. This volatility is spellbinding and Jackson’s performance is a fascinating study in anger mismanagement.

Life is an accident waiting to happen and sometimes changing lanes is the only thing that saves us from believing our road is the only way to travel.


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