Changing Lanes (2002)

Directed by Roger Michell

This is interesting – a movie that is what I expected but wasn’t what I expected. Let me explain …

When Changing Lanes came out, it was marketed as a kind of “road rage” movie. An action-thriller. At least, that was the impression I got. This is sort of where the film begins (though much tamer than a phrase like “road rage” suggests), but it certainly isn’t what the movie is about. There’s much more to it. Hooray!

The characters played by Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Affleck meet in a minor car accident while both of them are stressed, each anxiously trying to get to an important appointment.

The stresser in this case is time and this becomes an important element in the film. (Jackson wants his 20 minutes back; Affleck needs to get an important document back by the end of the day.)

The two men are thrust into a hostile relationship with one another by the accident as each sees the other as the key to the trouble in their lives. But the trouble each faces really has nothing to do with the other. Their problems are themselves – who they are and the choices each has made in his life.

The surface drama of the story relates to Ben Affleck’s document, which Jackson’s character has and which Affleck desperately needs back (as he sees it, his career depends upon it). Affleck takes steps to get it back which are essentially designed to ruin Jackson’s life so he is forced to return the document to Affleck.

For Jackson’s character, the desperation centres around keeping his family. His wife is moving to Oregon with their children and Jackson is desperate to find a way to keep them with him. He is is fixated on the idea of being a good father.

The actions of each man end up affecting the other badly, so the antagonism between them rises through the movie.

But this is only the surface drama. The real story is in the “why” each is doing what he is doing. Jackson’s character is essentially an angry man who is almost anal in his attempts to maintain control and calm. He is also an alcoholic trying to stay off the bottle. The fixation on fatherhood is on the semblance of it rather than the essence. (If he can look like a good father, do what father’s are supposed to do, then he will be one.)

The character played by Affleck is simply a random catalyst. Jackson’s character would have the same problems even without him – someone or something else would have triggered his problems because they are really internal. As his AA sponsor (William Hurt) says to him at one point, he is addicted not to booze but to chaos. To disaster.

Similarly, Affleck’s problems are also not about the other guy (Jackson). His problem is he has allowed his life to wander into a moral quagmire where good and bad are relative.

In casting the movie, Jackson and Affleck are about as perfect for their roles as it’s possible to get. Jackson plays his “average guy” character with a wonderfully nuanced performance. The rage in him is almost always there, but below the surface. The sense of anger battling with frustration and desperation plays on his face and through his body language beautifully.

Affleck is just as good. You get the sense throughout that his character knows exactly the moral consequences of his actions yet he continually deceives himself with a sense of uncertainty and denial.

Changing Lanes is really a morality play but, rather than a nice black and white version, recognizes shades of gray and makes them key to the story. My only complaint with the film, and it’s really just quibbling, is the ending (a kind of coda) which seems a bit quick, a bit too tacked on. However, given the type of movie it is, it is probably a necessary part.

The DVD quality is excellent, both video and sound. The special features are quite good too as they give you some insight into the filmmaker’s intentions. Especially interesting is the A Writer’s Perspective featurette.

This is one of the better movies of the year. It would be a mistake to miss it.

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