Blu-ray Review: Changing Lanes (2002)

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Obviously it’s an understatement to say that life is full of contradictions but an especially challenging one is trying to figure out when to remain still and when to fight back.

It’s a lesson that’s extraordinarily hard to pass on to the next generation—wanting to ensure that they don’t become violent bullies but at the same time (or at least it my point-of-view) reminding them that if they are being struck, it’s definitely okay to stand up for themselves. Provided, that is, that any physical response they make to defend themselves is purely in self defense. But, as we all know when tempers flare-- lines get crossed fast and the victim can become a bully shortly after the first punch is thrown.

Filmmaker Roger Michell’s Changing Lanes—a cinematic representation of an angry moral minefield—raises all of these contradictions and questions shortly after the film begins when two men with completely different backgrounds (both undergoing an overwhelming amount of stress) collide in a traffic accident during the a.m. rush hour on New York’s FDR drive.

Intriguingly, we discover that both men are on their way to settle legal situations. On the one hand we have Samuel L. Jackson as a recovering alcoholic Doyle Gipson who's preparing for his last plea to the family court judge to receive visitation rights to his children. And to balance out the equation, Gipson is matched with Ben Affleck’s smooth-talking yuppie Gavin Banek who is on his way to present an important series of documents in an ethically shady case that’s netted his law firm a ridiculous sum of money.

While it’s Affleck’s speeding Banek that crashes into Gipson, the two begin go through all of the motions they’re supposed to as responsible citizens by trading insurance information and ensuring the other person is okay. However, while Gipson wants to do everything by the book—Banek’s patience wears thin after a few seconds of requisite cordiality before his privileged sense of upper class entitlement and legal ease takes over. After he tries buy off Gipson with a blank check for the damage done to his vehicle, he feels his work is done and-- ignoring Gipson's request for a ride-- Banek leaves the scene of the accident with the thoughtless comment, “better luck next time.”

Although most audience members by now would simply assume that Banek is the villain and Gipson the unlucky hero—both men prove in their subsequent responses over the course of a very long, sinister Good Friday that they’re more than willing to bully and push back. And in doing so, each one ratchets up the level of pain in actions that go well beyond self defense into the realm of deadly serious attacks.

To their credit-- especially since the film is already a bit overly exaggerated and heavy-handed as it is-- filmmaker Michell and his screenwriters Chap Taylor and The Player scribe Michael Tolkin genuinely make an effort to sidestep any major “black and white” racial overtones, aside from one killer scene where Jackson gets the chance to deliver one of his trademark long monologues to two racist strangers while discussing his idea of a perfect Tiger Woods ad.

Yet—and despite the fact that from the earliest scenes the characters are presented on the surface as generic stereotypes (of both “race” and “class”)—Affleck and Jackson bring a great amount of layers to the roles that find them playing decidedly against type. To this end in both the press notes and behind-the-scenes documentaries, the former acknowledged he’d never had the opportunity to really act prior to this film (following Pearl Harbor up with Lanes) and the latter enjoyed the opportunity to play an uncool, unhip square for once.

However, the racial inequities, class struggles, religious symbolism of Good Friday and idea that both men were different levels of ethically ticking time bombs are laced throughout. Although on the surface they appear to have nothing in common—on that particular day when their vehicles and lives intersected and we realize they had an obscene amount to lose, their similar natures come out. As a result, they go into urban warfare using everything at their disposal when Banek tries to manipulate Gipson into giving back an important legal file he accidentally left in his hurried escape from the traffic accident and is too impatient to just meet up and talk things out.

However, life in an untouchable skyscraper gives Banek the edge to seriously destroy at will in an effort to save his career, marriage, and reputation when the file isn’t immediately returned. And although his former lover and colleague (Toni Collette) stars as his “conscience,” she also provides him with the contact information of a man (Dylan Baker) who can speed up the recovery process by taking a white-collar criminal approach to ruining Gipson.

It’s once this particular cyber attack is leveled in destroying Gipson financially that the film (which had already been moving from angry towards ferocious) becomes downright psychopathic and mean-spirited as a sort of twenty-first century version of Falling Down. And accordingly, the men take their frustrations out on each other in the most reprehensible of ways involving frightening Gipson’s children and nearly killing Banek on the road.

At its surface, of course, it's meant to illustrate the lesson that we never know exactly what’s going on in another human being’s life at any given moment. Yet, what started as an ingenious if obviously magnified and slightly dubious thriller of rage-fueled revenge gone wild instead falters given the exaggerated circumstances of the men and consequently turns into an absolutely repugnant depiction of attack and counter-attack run amok.

However, this being said, Lanes was critically lauded upon its initial release for its provocative approach and unabashed depiction of the very worst urges lurking in the hearts of men. Despite this, I feel pretty confident in the assumption that the film would not have been nearly as well received if Michell and his writers hadn’t tacked on a protracted penance filled ending which simply appears out of nowhere like a speeding car as the filmmaker’s attempt to crash some semblance of hope into the narrative.

Bolstered by a brilliant concept and terrific performances—especially by Jackson, Collette, and Sydney Pollack as Affleck’s boss and father in law—the film manages to push well past plausibility and audience empathy for the characters in its grueling final act in its transformations of two ordinary men who become the worst of bullies, never sure if and when they should step back and call a truce or just pummel each other beyond recognition.

And it’s in this strange attempt at marrying these two conclusions after we’ve just experienced one horrific event after another to the point that we no longer care about Banek or Gipson (or honestly 90% of the film’s cast) that made me question the filmmakers motive for Lanes as anything more than just in the end a clunky grown-up version of an after-school special.

Aside from the heavy-handed Good Friday religious symbolism that pervades, the work had enormous potential as a definite morality play set in contemporary America. In fact, seeing the film again now in a world where it seems that every week another citizen goes off the deep end and causes violent chaos in a gory shoot-out, it’s even timelier today than it was in 2002.

However, simplicity instead of exaggeration should’ve been the goal of those involved to try and make the two characters even remotely relatable or worth the investment, in lieu of depositing them in elaborate “schemes” and only-in-Hollywood plot points.

For this is especially the case as it concludes disappointingly with a reaffirmation of the same two stereotypes of the men that had opened the picture rather than making us feel that-- despite the excellent turns of the men portraying them-- Banek and Gipson had really changed all that much after all. Thus, Lane’s “happy ending” is damned in the end because it isn’t genuinely earned in the least as anything over than a convenient screenwriting contrivance.

With the theatrical trailer being the only special feature upgraded to high definition, we’re treated to the familiar yet interesting behind-the-scenes making-of-featurettes the include interviews with the cast and crew, an extended scene and deleted ones. Likewise, it contains a feature length commentary track by the director who-- after Lanes-- moved his career into far creepier territory with the eerie Enduring Love and excellent yet disturbing film The Mother (both of which starred the man who would become James Bond a.k.a. Daniel Craig).

Of particular interest to fellow writers would be the “Writer’s Perspective” extra that includes some insights from Michael Tolkin who was brought into work on the completed screenplay (always a sign that Wonder Boys, The Hours, and No Country for Old Men super producer Scott Rudin knew it was in trouble at the structural stage).

The Blu-ray itself is of excellent quality with first-rate sound throughout in one of the best Paramount soundtracks included on their slate of impressive 5/19 Blu-ray releases (that also included 3 Days of the Condor, Paycheck, Enemy at the Gates, and The Machinist) and a very sharply defined visual presentation that adds extra clarity to some of the tight, boxed-in shots, rapid-cuts, and darkly lit scenes.

Heightening that sense of feeling like a caged claustrophobic victim-- the Blu-ray completely pulls you in with an exceptional transfer of the unique production design and visual style, even if at times you'll have to remind yourself that there's no one you can push back amidst the chaos since after all, it's only just a film.