Changing Lanes isn’t interested in a bare-bones approach to the revenge movie. It has more in mind. It's a game of cat-and-mouse less concerned with making right and more about tap dancing on the fragile floor of what we’d call the ethical dilemma. In it, two men, played by Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson, are ensnared in a circle of oneupmanship, reminiscent of the diabolical games depicted in 1972’s Sleuth.
Their disdain for one another is a factor of a chance encounter. Both are driving to critical moments in their personal and professional lives, Doyle Gipson (Jackson) to a court-appointed custody hearing, Gavin Banek (Affleck), a stellar young lawyer, to a court case that could make or break the reputation of his firm. It’s Friday and traffic is bad, and Banek, being too caught up in preparation, bumps Gipson’s car and causes him to crash, flattening his tire in the process.
Mannered exchanges are traded, but nerves are stomped on when Banek absentmindedly writes Gipson a blank check, despite objections from the latter that he needs immediate help, not passing aid. But Banek runs off, his farewell a cringeworthy rendition of the classic “better luck next time” line. In return, Gipson is twenty minutes late to his meeting, giving the jury incentive to grant his wife (Kim Staunton) sole custody, with Banek’s case stilted by the fact that he accidentally left an important file with Gipson in their scuffle.
So when they bump into each other once again later in the day, something in Gipson, a recovering alcoholic, snaps. Knowing of the importance the file has on Banek’s career, he uses it to taunt his opponent. But being high and mighty, Banek does everything he can to force the man into returning the document, going so far as to cause him faux bankruptcy that inhibits an impending loan. The stakes get higher and the spectacle of revenge grows increasingly ravenous. But there comes a point by which the men are handed a metaphorical mirror and are forced to see themselves from a perspective that goes far beyond self-interest.
Changing Lanes never stops being arresting because we are never provided with easy answers; choosing sides, trading sympathies, is not an uncluttered option. Banek and Gipson are not uncomplicated figures of heroism nor villainy. Both slither around on a day to day basis telling themselves that they’re acting selflessly, but self-interest is what waits on the other side. Penchant anger is always resting somewhere deep within their beings, waiting to be unleashed; what they don’t have in common class-wise is made up for in the way they can hardly control themselves when something doesn’t go the way they’d like. So maybe it’s no coincidence that they find themselves parties to a car wreck — maybe these two were always meant to push each others buttons, to cause the other to look deep within themselves and discover why life has always been a balancing act.
The pairing of Jackson and Affleck, though initially ponderous, works its way into being successfully (and authentically) antagonistic. Jackson is the middle-aged screw-up who has never gotten his life together; Affleckis the young upstart who seemingly has it all, despite only being in his twenties. Under different circumstances, these men might have gotten along, or, better yet, never crossed paths. But their accidental meeting seems to be one of fate in Changing Lanes, and we’re kept glued to the screen, never quite sure of where their vengeance will take them. Jackson and Affleck give terrific performances, portraying their characters’ neuroses with an effective mix of fury and vulnerability.
So nothing in Changing Lanes is simple, and that’s what I like best about it. There are no right answers, no right characters, no right roads to travel down — it’s a battle of reputations and needs with much moral ambiguity to muddy its complexities. B+