All director Roger Michell has done throughout his career is make one terrific, underrated film after another, and one of his absolute best is Changing Lanes. Feeling like a movie from the 70’s in many respects, this is a thoughtful drama about personal morals and business ethics, and while it was well-received by critics (Ebert notably flipped out) and did solid box-office (close to $70 million domestic), I feel that this one qualifies as terribly under the radar, deserving of far more praise and reassessment. Starring the surprisingly combustible duo of Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Affleck as two men pushed and stretched to their respective breaking points by one another’s selfish, potentially dangerous behavior, Changing Lanes is ALL about character, motivation, decisions, and a constant sense of inner turmoil for everyone involved in the narrative. Jackson and Affleck both deliver excellent performances, with Jackson getting the chance to play sensitive which is a rarity, and Affleck doing some of his most effective dramatic acting as a young man who seemingly has it all figured out, but quickly realizes he’s swimming in a sea of vipers. The screenplay by Chap Taylor (an ex-assistant to Woody Allen) and Michael Tolkin never goes over the top even though at times you feel it might; everything stays believable within reason and I loved how there was never the thought to inject a phony action scene or shoot-out or something conventional into an otherwise unconventional (in many respects) piece of studio filmmaking. The film truly feels like a complicated exploration of the human condition, a lost relic from a different era.
The action centers on two men having a bad morning, which gets even worse when they’re involved in an traffic accident on the highway outside of NYC. They’re both late for court (Affleck is a lawyer; Jackson is going through child custody hearings) and Affleck flippantly dismisses the accident and throws a blank check at a dismayed Jackson, who wants to do things by the book. What Affleck doesn’t realize is that he’s dropped sensitive and super-important documents in the street, which Jackson snags after Affleck drives away. From there, the film becomes a desperate story about Affleck needing to retrieve the documents, and going to psychological war with Jackson, who is dealing with his new-found sobriety (William Hurt turns up for a great cameo as his AA sponsor) and the deep love for his children. Affleck is also forced to contend with his conniving father-in-law and boss (the perfectly smarmy and vicious Sydney Pollack) and his ice-cold wife (Amanda Peet, nailing her one big seen with pointed line delivery and casual, deceptive sexiness). And then there’s the subtly stylish cinematography from Salvatore Totino Asc Aic, which goes a long way in shaping the emotional textures to the characters and the story. It’s constantly raining in Changing Lanes – both outside and inside, literally and metaphorically – and the way Totino’s slippery camera moves captured water and its reflective quality brought an introspective level to the visuals that amps up the psychological and dramatic tension all throughout the film. I also loved the close-up on the back of Affleck’s head towards the film’s denouement; you feel like you’re travelling directly into his thoughts as his makes up his mind on how to handle the situation he’s found himself in. David Arnold’s moody and ambient score is also first-rate.