Changing Lanes seasons its narrative with effective dashes of class and race. Caucasian Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) is a well-connected associate at a high-powered New York law firm. He has handled the estate for a billionaire philanthropist, a supervision that has landed his firm managerial authority over a $100-million trust fund. Needless to say, he's a hero, especially to his father-in-law, Stephen Delano (Sydney Pollack), who just happens to be the firm's managing partner.
In contrast, African-American insurance salesman Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson) is struggling both to make ends meet and to put his life back on track. He's a recovering alcoholic and a divorced father of two young sons. Doyle has just put together enough down-payment money to swing a loan on a modest townhouse he desperately wants to present to his ex-wife so she won't relocate with their children to Oregon.
On a damp Good Friday morning, both Gavin and Doyle are rushing to court -- Doyle for a custody hearing, Gavin to file those estate papers -- when they bang into each other on the expressway. Neither is hurt, but trouble nonetheless flares up when Gavin tries to settle the matter by handing Doyle a blank check for damages and then racing away toward his court appointment, leaving Doyle stranded in the rain and rather considerably unhappy. Unfortunately for Gavin, he accidentally leaves behind with Doyle a crucial file with the dead philanthropist's original signature. Doyle misses court and loses his custody appeal. Gavin arrives in court on time, but without his file his firm stands to lose a $100 million account. Frustration and anger all around. Revenge is sought. And violence begets violence.
Changing Lanes suffers from the usual Hollywood carelessness about its own details. Gavin's whole blank-check ploy takes little less time than carefully providing Doyle with proper insurance information. And Gavin's abrupt decision to speed off seems completely unmotivated. If Gavin is supposed to be a basically decent guy who gets caught in the avalanche spawned by the snowball of one bad decision, the script could have worked a bit harder here. Even if Gavin refused to take Doyle where he needed to go, he could have as easily given him a lift into the city as to abandon him. Elsewhere, the filmmakers try to heighten tension by suggesting that Gavin can go to jail if he fails to provide the philanthropist's original signature on his trust's authority transfer document. But that's nonsense. It's not until Gavin's partners decide to forge a document that somebody is in danger of going to jail. Elsewhere still, the picture introduces Toni Collette as Michelle, another attorney at Gavin's firm who alternately tries to buck up Gavin's moral courage and agrees to hook him up with a mobster computer hacker to ruin Doyle's personal finances. When we eventually learn that Gavin has been cheating with Michelle on his wife Cynthia (Amanda Peet), our scoffing is almost audible.
All the same, I rush to give Changing Lanes the credit it deserves. Unlike the standard American studio feature, we aren't ever entirely clear where the picture is headed or how it's going to end. And when we arrive at the conclusion, we admire its subtle ambiguity, the fragility of circumstances that greet the closing credits. The film also poses a nice question about living and surviving in the modern world. We can fairly safely convict Gavin's father-in-law of hypocritical self-justification when he claims that "by the end of the day, I do more good than harm." But what of Gavin's efforts to achieve redemption? How much good must he do to atone for his sins, and how much comfort can he allow himself along the way?
The most enduring quality in this film, though, is the way it forthrightly indicts that elemental human instinct for retribution. We aren't entirely sure who is responsible for the traffic accident. But once the process of payback starts, first Doyle, then Gavin, then Doyle, then Gavin, ad infinitum, sees himself as victim, with righteousness as the license to respond violently. This picture hardly gets the problem solved, but the lesson is clear for those sad humans between the Mediterranean and the Jordan as for urban motorists: whoever started things, somebody has to be the first one to stop. Only then can his enemy stop.