A fender bender on the FDR brings the lives of two men into collision as they both hurry to meet the demands life is pressing upon them. The lives of Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) and Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson) are interrupted, and the delay resulting from the accident disrupts the order of their lives. In facing each other, they discover that they must be honest about the real root of the chaos in their lives. Is it the corruption pressing in from without or the pollution bubbling up from within that makes us wrestle with the hard choices of doing what is right and good?
Under the exquisite direction of Roger Michell and with the support of a superb cast, Changing Lanes is a character study told in a way that is surprisingly free from Hollywood convention and artificiality. Banek, the fast-paced corporate attorney, and Gipson, a recovering alcoholic working feverishly to keep his family together, are people we know living in the world as we recognize it from our own experience. These are the kinds of accidents that happen to ordinary people, like us, and these are the kinds of things that ordinary people, like us, do when we find ourselves in circumstances like these. The clarity of these characters portrayed on the screen draws us in, and we know that we are learning something about ourselves. Interior rooms of our heart are opened, and we ask of ourselves, What kind of person am I?
The accident makes both Banek and Gipson late for court appearances. Banek drops the file he was delivering to court on the freeway, and the judge gives him to the end of the day to produce the file, the file that Gipson has retrieved. Gipson has to repair his flat tire, and his late appearance at family court results in the judge awarding custody of his children to his wife. Both men blame each other for the trouble that has resulted, and each has leverage on the other – Gipson has the missing file, and Banek has legal clout to hurt Gipson.
“Better luck next time!” Banek shouts over his shoulder as he speeds away leaving Gipson to repair his flat tire. “Better luck next time!” Gipson scrawls on a fax to Banek letting him know he will not return the file. But luck has nothing to do with the circumstances facing these two men. They are faced with choices that arise from character. They are faced with the decision of what kind of man each will choose to be.
Gipson is a hard-working man, doing all he knows how to do to get control of his life, rescue his marriage, and keep his family. But when his wife observes how he is responding to the day’s events, she comments, “This is the sort of thing that always happens to you–and never happens to me unless I am in your field of gravity.” Later that day, his AA sponsor tells him, “Booze isn’t really your drug of choice. You’re addicted to chaos.”
Banek is an aggressive legal shark exploring how many ethical boundaries he is willing to cross in order to be successful. He is confronted by his wife who realizes that his crisis of conscience may cost her the way of life she wants to maintain. She asks him, “Did you know my father has been cheating on my mother for 20 years?” “No,” Banek responds, then adds, “Well, I didn’t know it was for 20 years.” His wife informs him that her mother knew all along, “but she thought it would be unethical to leave a man for cheating on his marriage, after she has an enjoyed an expensive lifestyle that depends on a man who makes his money by cheating at work.” Then, she looks across the table at Banek and informs him, “I could have married an honest man.” She is prepared to make the same ethical sacrifice that her mother made.
These lives collide on “a stormy Good Friday, and this noisily introspective salvation allegory is doggedly literal about treading on Jesus’s footprints” (The Village Voice). Changing Lanes is a journey worth taking even if it brings you into collision with some of the order you may be desperately trying to maintain in your life. Better luck next time? or, Better choices next time? Better choices will require some renovation of the soul if you are willing.