Changing Lanes (2002)
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0
Paramount, $29.99

Upon its release last spring, Changing Lanes was widely classified, and quickly dismissed, as a drama about road rage, but that premise is a skeleton upon which you’ll find a surprising amount of meat. Although the film is dressed as a studio feature – complete with two box-office stars, an expensive location shoot in New York, and a very contemporary look (courtesy of cinematographer Salvatore Totino and production designer Kristi Zea) – beneath that veneer lies a sharply drawn, very skeptical portrait of human nature.

When Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) cuts off Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson) in morning rush-hour traffic on the FDR, both men are equally distracted, and running late for their respective appointments. But that’s where their similarities end. Banek is a brash, young lawyer on his way up the ladder, and Gipson is a recovering alcoholic struggling to stay above the bottom rung. Determined to "do the next right thing," Gipson wants to handle the accident properly; Banek, on the other hand, offers a blank check and speeds off with a cheery "Better luck next time!" What Banek doesn’t know is what the rest of the plot hinges upon: Gipson also has a rather towering problem with anger management, and the accident’s aftermath has left something in his possession that Banek cannot do without.

What helps to make Changing Lanes unusual is that as the cat-and-mouse action escalates – finally to preposterous extremes – its main characters become more complex rather than less so. Co-scripted by Michael Tolkin and Chap Taylor (from a story by Taylor), the narrative unfolds over a single day, and at day’s end you feel as though you’ve dropped in on two lives that have been fully detailed, for better and for worse. Sadly, the film’s most farfetched aspect is its feel-good conclusion, which smells of test marketing and a worried studio’s second thoughts. (It is telling, perhaps, that in his commentary during these scenes, director Roger Michell says, "I’m not sure what I think about this ending … but I don’t hate it.")

Beginning with the high-speed, start-and-stop tour of Manhattan highways and byways that comprises its title sequence, Changing Lanes bristles with the energy of New York City. In his commentary, Michell credits Totino’s "slightly inquisitive" camera with giving the narrative a sense of immediacy; to create constant motion of varying degrees, the cinematographer kept the camera handheld or mounted on a fluid head. "We had one Steadicam shot and used no cranes, nothing fancy," Michell says. "I’ve always believed that the higher the concept of the material, the more realistic the filmmaking approach should be." He also notes that maintaining a consistent, overcast-day look in the film’s numerous exteriors, which were filmed across the length and breadth of the city, posed some nightmarish challenges during the two-month, wintertime shoot.

Paramount’s transfer features good detail and crisp blacks, even in scenes set in Banek’s impossibly glossy – and glassy – law offices (an impressive set designed by Zea). Unfortunately, the disc’s bonus materials are rather unremarkable; they include a couple of deleted scenes, an extended scene, and a "making of" featurette that is strictly by the numbers.

One potentially interesting supplement is "A Writer’s Perspective," which consists of short, separate interviews with Tolkin and Taylor. Unfortunately, neither discusses exactly how and what he contributed to the script. Another topic they avoid, probably wisely, is the disparity between the film’s conclusion and the tenor of the rest of it. In light of Tolkin’s previous screenwriting work (The Player, The Rapture, Deep Impact), it’s tempting to attribute Changing Lanes’ dark view to him, especially when he speculates, "Gavin Banek without the accident would have been like Humpty Dumpty without the fall – but Humpty would have slowly slid off the wall, anyway."

 – Rachael Bosley

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© 2002 American Society of Cinematographers.