Changing Lanes (2002)

D: Roger Mitchell
S: Ben Affleck, Samuel L. Jackson

Challenging personal and ethical drama which unfortunately demonstrates cowardice in its resolution in direct proportion to the courage it has shown in plotting and characterisation. The film charts the conflict between two men whose cars collide early one morning on the intersection. One is Ben Affleck (Dogma), a young partner in a successful law firm which has just inherited control of a multi-million dollar charity foundation, much to the chagrin of the founder's granddaughter. The other is Samuel L. Jackson (Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones) a recovering alcoholic insurance salesman on his way to legal proceedings at which his wife is taking custody of his sons in advance of her and their moving out of town. When Affleck refuses to surrender insurance information because he is eager to deliver important papers to a court hearing of his own, Jackson comes into possession of a vital folder of documents which the former has dropped.

Rather than go down some kind of moronic stalker thriller or sensational action flick route, the film proceeds to cleverly and delicately explore the relationship between action and consequence. A tit for tat campaign of attrition begins as the men's respective days seem to get worse and worse. Each man confronts the other with his own lack of consideration (with, of course, an added dose of ill-considered retaliation), leading to a spiral of miscommuncation, misunderstanding, and misdirection which threatens to destroy both of them. Amazingly, joyously, brilliantly, the film manages to keep all of this action on a realistic and convincing level of detail without recourse to caricature, gross exaggeration or things exploding. It builds a powerful and affecting sense of consequence, a world not of hyperbolic narrative, but where events have real and important effects on people's lives and which could, in essence, happen to anyone. In between each upping of the stakes, moments of reflection allow the characters to grow and develop into fully realised human beings with strengths and failings rooted in believable circumstances convincingly represented. The suspense and tension which develops is all the more effective because by the time the film reaches its deliberately anticlimactic climax, a sense of sheer human exhaustion has overwhelmed both the characters and the audience which has come to empathise with them almost completely.

Changing Lanes is an accomplished piece of writing and direction. Mitchell manages to juggle the interrelated storylines with due attention to the characterisation of both key roles, and provides enough space for the rich palette of secondary characters to contribute more than just wallpaper to the plot. The story weaves in themes and issues without stretching, and even manages to work in explicit and implicit references to fate and religion without being heavy handed about it. By the time the two men confront one another in the semi-darkened law offices where Affleck works at the end of a long and tiring day, the film's sense of the traps and paradoxes of contemporary morality is as strong as anything seen in American cinema for some years. When the nominally sleazy and manipulative character played by Sydney Pollack, a senior partner in Affleck's firm (and his father-in-law) says he believes that on the balance of things that he does more harm than good (in spite of defrauding charity and falsifying legal documents), we are reluctantly forced to concede that this is probably true. It is a powerhouse of social and psychological despair on the scale of the darkest of the seventies conspiracy films, only even more rooted in human emotion and therefore all the more powerful.

It is truly unfortunate that the film cops out in its last few minutes. Unable or unwilling to leave the film where it sits at this zenith of weary truth, Mitchell and his writers, presumably under the gun of moneymen somewhere, provide an astonishing happy ending which flies in the face of everything we have seen. After constructing such a complex and ambiguous sense of the world in which good and bad are in a state of delicate balance, the film runs screaming home to the cathartic resolution of classic narrative with a set of twists which do no justice to all that has gone before. The challenge to the audience is summarily dropped, as, obviously, the filmmakers expectations of their audience's intelligence were. Everyone loves a happy ending maybe, but sometimes life offers uneasy truces between realisation and resolution. This film reaches a powerful plateau of realisation as Affleck and Jackson sit quietly and realise where their lives have left them and how much each of them has to do before they can find a route to happiness. Rather than allow the audience to go home armed with that uniquely hopeful sense of potential resolution, the film gives it to us, leaving nothing to take away but empty candy wrappers and popcorn kernels.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.