Car crashes don’t drive Changing Lanes; they just start it up and shift it into high gear. Co-screenwriter Michael Tolkin (Deep Impact) habitually steers a story onto a road less traveled by Hollywood movies. Thrills here are just roadside attractions — the journey behind intrigue is an eye-for-an-eye war between two flawed heroes — and melodrama drives us to the edge of ethics, morals and their root of faith. Changing Lanes isn’t so much a thriller as a thinker.
As Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) drives to meet an impending court date, it’s the $100 million his prestigious law firm stands to lose that’s on his mind, not the road. Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson) also has to make it to court on time, but for love, not for money: He’s desperately determined to persuade the judge to allow him custody of his two sons.
Random chance, fate — or divine intervention — put the two men on a literal crash course. After the dust and flying glass settle, Banek ducks back into his silver Mercedes and offers a blank check to expedite the situation. But that’s not the way of Gipson’s Alcoholics Anonymous creed: He’s got to “do this thing right.” Banek shrugs off Gipson’s outraged sense of ethics and his demand for a ride with the Teflon manner of the privileged. In the guise of consolation he offers, “Better luck next time.”
Changing Lanes isn’t about luck, though. Like the other films Tolkin has scripted, from The Rapture (1991) to The Player (1992) and The New Age (1994), the question between the lines is biblical: When tested, will men uphold their covenants and eventually find redemption? Unlike Job or Jesus, Tolkin’s characters cannot in good faith look heavenward but only in their mirrors for the source of their trials and tribulations — and their mundane salvations.
As it momentarily shifts down into escalating mutual retributions, Changing Lanes may strain credibility. But Banek and Gipson’s crash subtextually breaks open an often-realistic view into an America where races, classes, and power and ethics clash. For a Hollywood movie, that’s a welcome change.
E-mail James Keith La Croix at firstname.lastname@example.org.