Monday, September 7, 2009
I’ve always liked stories which start out by throwing normal, ordinary people into rough situations… and then letting them spiral down as a result of their own flaws and bad decisions. Changing Lanes is a great example of that.
Gavin Banek is an ambitious young lawyer with a good life. He works for his father-in-law’s firm and has a mistress on the side. And on the day it all starts (the entire film takes place in a day) he has to take an important file to court, to counter the granddaughter of a millionaire coerced into signing his wealth over to Banek’s firm. So he’s driving, already a little late.
Doyle Gipson is quite different. A recovering alcoholic, he’s trying to turn his life around, and has taken out a loan on a house to try to persuade his ex-wife not to move away with their sons. Now he’s on his way to the courthouse to meet her. One thing that really touched me was when he’s in his car, earnestly repeating aloud the things he has to say to the judge about boys needing their fathers.
One fender strikes another. The story begins.
At first it’s all very civilized – the two men check that neither of them is hurt – but then Banek remembers how late he is and offers Gipson a blank check rather than wasting time with the insurance information. Gipson refuses. He wants to do everything correctly. He’s kind of an idealist, poor guy. Banek is sorry but no, he can’t hang around or offer Gipson a ride. “Better luck next time,” he says and drives off, leaving Gipson with his now non-functional car.
And beside a file that has fallen, unnoticed, by the side of the road.
I love this kind of setup because it could happen to anyone. And that’s the premise of the story – that here are two regular guys who under routine circumstances would never have met each other but would never have harmed each other if they did. But they changed lanes, they did meet each other and now they’re going to do things that would appall them.
Banek arrives at the courthouse and realizes he’s lost the file. The dialogue that follows is wince-inducing in an empathic way. Left empty-handed before the judge, Banek launches into an explanation of how, as he was exchanging insurance information with the other guy, he accidentally handed him the file.
Judge : Did you get his name?
Banek : Did I get his name? Yes. Of course I got his name.
Judge : Just call him.
Banek : As I – as I – uh, if memory serves, Your Honor, I believe he’s not in.
(The opposing attorney covers his mouth to hide a grin)
Judge : How do you know?
Banek : He made some reference to the fact that he was, uh, feeling hurried because, uh, he had to be at an appointment of some sort.
Judge (in an I-can’t-believe-I-have-to-spell-this-out tone) : Call his number and leave a message.
Banek : Yes, of course, Your Honor.
Meanwhile, Gipson arrives late to his own appointment and the judge dismisses his case.
Roger Ebert pointed out that a lesser film might have made Gipson the underdog good guy and Banek the evil one. It could also have gone the other way around. Gipson – who does have a bit of an anger problem – might have leaped to thoughts of revenge after he found the file. Instead, though, that never occurs to him until Banek, who’s driving around in a desperate haze, finally spots him and offers him ten thousand dollars for the file.
Gipson : You... you think I want money? What I want is my morning back. I need you to give my time back to me. Can you give me back my time?
But after Banek drives away in defeat, there’s a quiet moment where Gipson just stands there. The camera focuses on him and you can almost see the thoughts going through his head. It’s very well done.
So he faxes a page from the file to Banek with the words, “Better luck next time” scrawled on it. In retaliation, Banek goes to a man who “takes care of things that need… taken care of”. A few keystrokes later, Gipson is officially bankrupt. So he takes the revenge game to the next step, and what follows is a roadway scene that reflects how the story started out and is extremely tense into the bargain.
Gipson’s AA sponsor : Everything decent is held together by a covenant. An agreement not to go batshit. You broke the contract!
This film never paints its characters in shades of black and white (no pun intended with regard to the actors – Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Affleck). They are people who are capable of decency as well as deceit. After sending the “Better luck next time” fax, Gipson calls for a courier and prepares to send the file back because that’s the right thing to do. The better part of his character has risen to the surface. He listens to his voice mail as he writes Banek’s name on the envelope.
And that’s when he hears Banek’s message telling him his credit has been turned off and he is bankrupt. So of course, he changes lanes once again. The title of the film is a perfect metaphor for what the two men do - not just physically, but in their moral walks through life, which are profoundly affected by coming into contact with each other.
I could think of a few mistakes (maybe more than few) in Changing Lanes. For instance, Gipson wrote his phone number on one of the scraps of paper that end up scattered over the ground; lucky for Banek that he found the correct scrap. I could think of more problems. But when I watch this film, I don’t want to.