The two main characters of "Changing Lanes", the latest film from "Notting House" director Roger Michell, are from two different worlds. Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck of "Pearl Harbor") has recently been made partner at a well-heeled Wall Street law firm, while recovering alcoholic Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson of "Unbreakable") scrapes by with selling insurance over the telephone. Gavin is married to the daughter of his boss (Amanda Peet of "Saving Silverman"), while Doyle is trying to hold onto his two young boys, who are about to move across the country with his soon-to-be ex-wife Valerie (Kim Staunton of "Holy Man"). Under normal circumstances, these two men of differing social strata would never meet.
One morning, both men find themselves on the way to a New York courthouse. Gavin is delivering a Power of Appointment that gives his father-in-law's firm the right to manage a deceased man's $107 million charity, while Doyle is on his way to a custody hearing where he hopes to mount one last-ditch effort to keep Valerie from taking his kids. Both men end up in a fender-bender. To expedite things, Gavin offers Doyle a blank check for the damages, but Doyle, wanting to do the right thing, refuses, insisting that they exchange insurance information and wait for the police. Not willing to hang around, Gavin tells Doyle "Better luck next time" and drives off, leaving Doyle stranded in the middle of the freeway.
However, what Gavin doesn't realize is that he has left behind the all-important Power of Appointment, which Doyle picks up. Doyle, whose custody hearing goes badly as a result of Gavin's actions, refuses Gavin's request to return the Power of Appointment, upon which Gavin's career and the future of the firm are precariously balanced on. Desperate, Gavin hires a man to hack into Doyle's credit history and bankrupt him as a means to gain leverage. Unfortunately, it only ignites an escalating war of retribution that pushes both men to the edge.
Though it has been described as a 'road rage thriller', "Changing Lanes", is anything but. True, the film's central high-stakes battle of wills erupts as a result of a traffic accident. However, instead of sticking to the machinations of the revenge formula and focusing purely on the escalating episodes of one-upmanship, the story also delves into the process of introspection and revelation that these two men undergo as a result of the accident. Both Gavin and Doyle come to see themselves and the lives they lead in a different light. Gavin, who has uncomfortably built his law career on lying and cheating, begins to find his compromise-laden work and home environments increasingly claustrophobic, as his boss orders him to commit fraud and his wife 'cheers him on'. Doyle, who has wrestled with alcohol and a fiery temper all his life, finds himself spiraling out of control as a raised voice quickly gives way to assault and even attempted murder.
The smart script by Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin ("Deep Impact") details the descent of both men in parallel, and it is revealed that, despite their differing backgrounds, they are very much alike. As the conflict between them escalates, they each turn to their respective crutches: alcohol for Doyle, and using money to bend the rules for Gavin. Both men rely on a confidante to serve as their consciences, Gavin's ex-mistress (Toni Collette, who starred alongside Jackson in "Shaft") and Doyle's AA counselor (William Hurt of "Artificial Intelligence"), and also thrive on getting in the 'last word', though they both learn that such victories are hollow. Accomplished lensing by cinemtographer Salvatore Totino ("Any Given Sunday") also helps to illustrate the similarities and differences between the two men, with documentary-style camera work being used to accentuate the edginess in both their lives, while contrasting the cool colors of Doyle's world with Gavin's warmly-lensed Wall Street surroundings.
Affleck and Jackson turn in strong performances, with Affleck's portrayal of the increasingly conflicted Gavin a nice change from his blandness in "Pearl Harbor", while Jackson shows off his trademark intensity as a ticking time bomb of pent-up rage. In the supporting cast, Sydney Pollack (director of "Random Hearts") is superb as yet another ethically challenged suit (à la "A Civil Action") while Peet has a brief but welcome appearance as Gavin's shameless wife.
"Changing Lanes" is a lot smarter than it looks. Under the sheen of a grade-B direct-to-video thriller is an intelligent, thought-provoking, and character-driven examination of how two men try to salvage what is left of their humanity and decency in a world where there is no incentive to. Like "Panic Room", and unlike many of the films of dubious quality that have graced the big screen since the beginning of the year, "Changing Lanes" makes a strong and unforgettable impression, and will certainly be remembered as one of the best of the year.