I still remember the endorphin rush as my thirteen-year-old fist pounded my little brother who had just told me, with bratty officiousness, that I should not be eating Mom's fruitcake. (Fruitcake!!) Even at the time, I was horrified at my exhilaration, desisting only because I feared that the pleasure of each punch might push me to the point of seriously injuring the eight-year-old howling at my feet. I have no recollection whether my mother found out about the fight— or the fruitcake. The memory, instead, inscribes my potential for violence: a potential that perhaps more of us need to consider as we remember the incidents of September 11 and regard in dismay the escalating violence in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, when many of us think of vengeance, we attribute it primarily to people of countries "less civilized" than our own. Even when we consider homegrown vendettas, we usually distance ourselves by associating them with identifiable ethnic subcultures, or as a problem of the rural and urban poor. For this very reason, more people need to see Changing Lanes, one of the most interesting and critically acclaimed (though little seen) films of this past summer. Recently released on video and DVD, Changing Lanes is a parable about the overpowering attraction of vengeance, even to well-educated upper-class American professionals—a parable that gets more relevant with each newspaper dropped into the recycling bin.
The opening shots of the movie create disequilibrium as the camera delivers a headlight-level view of the pavement, speeding up the film as the car behind the camera barely misses objects in the road when it turns, passes, and, of course, changes lanes. In the midst of this montage, the director gives us an establishing shot that unwittingly increases our disequilibrium: the New York City skyline, with the World Trade Center intact. Filmed before 9-11-01, Changing Lanes becomes prophetic, without even meaning to.
After this opening sequence, the film introduces us to the contrasting protagonists, cutting back and forth between Doyle (Samuel L. Jackson), a recovering-alcoholic insurance salesman with coke-bottle glasses, and Gavin (Ben Affleck), who, as a partner in a successful law firm, seems to have attained the American dream with a tony office, luxurious car, beautiful wife, and youthful good looks.
The film's first words are from Doyle, who stands in a squalid row house, telling a realtor "I think I'll make this the boys' room." We cut to the image of boys and girls playing orchestral music in a contrastingly elegant space, where Gavin talks into a microphone about a foundation that funds inner-city youth programs. These differing approaches to the support of children intersect as Doyle and Gavin drive to the same courthouse, Doyle in an attempt to keep his estranged wife and sons in New York, Gavin to defend his law firm's control of the foundation. We are given shots inside each car, where both are talking out loud, Gavin speaking to a colleague on his handless car phone about his court appointment, and Doyle practicing to himself what he will say in court: "Boys need their fathers." Their goals crash into each other—literally-as both attempt to change lanes in the rain, an incident which will change the lanes of their lives.
While Doyle's old, beat-up Toyota is completely disabled, Gavin's Mercedes is still operable. Not wanting to take the time to exchange insurance info, Gavin resorts to the expediency of wealth—offering to write a blank check—ignoring not only Doyle's exhortation that "It's important we do this right," but also his plea for a ride. Gavin zooms off, yelling "Better luck next time," not noticing that he has dropped a red file folder crucial to his case. Doyle picks up the folder and walks toward the city in the rain, losing the chance to gain custody of his sons when he fails to appear in court on time. Meanwhile, Gavin risks jail time if he cannot produce an important legal document that is in the file folder Doyle now possesses.
When Doyle discovers the value of the red folder to its owner, he faxes Gavin's own words back to him, scrawling over one of the file's typed pages "better luck next time"—as though in parody of "eye-for-eye" justice. Old Testament scholars assert that the biblical injunction "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" called for equitable retribution rather than the intensification of violence, but Changing Lanes illustrates the difficulty of keeping revenge from escalating. Reminding us of the endless brutalities in Israel and Palestine, the retributions enacted by Doyle and Gavin get more and more vicious, until the hatred so overwhelms them that they both forget what caused their feud in the first place. Destroying the other's well-being eventually becomes an end in itself.
Changing Lanes, then, asks us to consider how to change out of the lane of revenge, showing that wealth and privilege can offer no comforts that might temper the impulse for retribution. The movie makes explicit the difference between Gavin's upper-class world and Doyle's lower middle-class existence. Gavin works in a light-filled art-studded office that towers above the streets below, where Doyle makes his way amidst the bleak greys and browns of the grimy pavement, often in the rain. Unlike the refined Gavin, Doyle often resorts to physical violence, throwing objects and punches to express his frustration. However, the most outrageous moral lapses occur in Gavin's law firm, whose senior partners cynically forge documents to disguise the fact that they have skimmed money from the foundation they supervise. As though to illustrate that the rain falls on the poor and the rich alike—on both Doyle in the dirty streets and the lawyers in their elegant offices—the film includes a scene in which Gavin sets off the fire-sprinkler system, raining water down on the pricey office decor.
Demonstrating the failure of education and professional status to guarantee ethical behavior, the film suggests—and retracts—"family values" as a way to change the lanes of revenge. In perhaps the most chilling scene of the movie, Gavin joins his wholesome-looking wife at an up-scale restaurant, where she tells him with tender, wide-eyed sincerity that they're "partners" and that she wants "to stand beside" him. We soon discover, however, that her supportive words, "let me help you with this," are meant to motivate his forgery of a legal document so that they can maintain their comfortable lifestyle: "I could've lived with a moral man, but I married a Wall Street lawyer," she says. "Can you live there with me?"
The disturbing juxtaposition of familial love and self-serving behavior occurs in another scene: when Gavin visits a computer hacker who, for a hefty fee, agrees to eliminate Doyle's credit, essentially bankrupting him. As the camera enters his bare-bones office, we witness the hacker saying on the phone, presumably to the child who has colored the cute pictures tacked on his wall, "One cookie before lunch is OK." Though affectionately prescribing correct behavior for his child, the hacker has no qualms destroying another man's life.
As the hacker gets ready to disrupt Doyle's finances, the distressed Gavin asks, "Is there any other way?" The man at the computer replies, without a hint of sarcasm, "Sure! Call him up and be nice to him." This hopeful solution is suggested, as well, in the very next scene. While addressing an envelope containing the red file, Doyle tells a co-worker that he is "doing the right thing" by returning the legal document to its rightful owner. Before he can get the envelope delivered, however, Doyle gets Gavin's vicious voice-mail about his bankruptcy, leading him to reject what he believes is "right."
Choosing what is "right," of course, is the only way to defuse increasingly violent acts of retribution. Changing Lanes, however, shows us that competing definitions of the "right" turn this simple choice into a moral morass. When Gavin tells his colleague (and former mistress) about Doyle's appropriation of the red file, she offers him a solution, using what seems to be the language of morality: "Do you want what's right? What's right is your job, your wife, your life." This self-serving definition of "right," then, is what justifies Gavin's visit to the computer hacker.
The Janus face of "ethics" appears once again as Gavin converses with his wife over lunch. She talks about her mother's seemingly noble decision to stay with her husband despite knowledge of his mistress, but then she explains her mother's motivation: "She thought it would be unethical to leave a man for cheating on his marriage after she has enjoyed an expensive lifestyle that depends on a man who makes his money by cheating at work." When a person (and perhaps a nation) aligns the "right" with protecting a way of life, ethics can easily become skewed.
Changing Lanes exposes the ruthlessness of self-protectionism through its temporal setting. We are told early in the film that the day is Good Friday, preparing us for later when Gavin wanders into a church in the midst of its Good Friday service. Having nearly died when Doyle successfully sabotaged his car, Gavin enters the church in dismay. Drenched by the rain, he has abandoned his totaled Mercedes on the same road where he had abandoned Doyle earlier in the day. When we see him walk past Doyle's wrecked Toyota, it seems as though he has changed lanes, or at least places, with his nemesis, who had walked down the same rainy road that morning. As the camera follows Gavin into the church, we see a crucifix with the suffering Christ and hear a hymn about "the Savior of the World," reminding us of the one who changed lanes, or at least places, with us. Gavin enters a confessional, telling the priest "I came here for meaning," because "the world is a sewer, a garbage dump": appropriate words for Good Friday, the day which memorializes the brutal crucifixion of the only truly innocent man. Significantly, in the midst of Gavin's visit to the church, the film cuts to Doyle and his estranged wife talking in the squalid house he wants to buy. Between them, pasted on the back wall of an open closet, is a familiar picture of Christ, opening his chest cavity to show a breaking heart.
We see neither Gavin nor Doyle looking at these images, but the presence of Christ has nevertheless entered a film about the need to change the vengeful lanes of our lives. Interestingly, of eight reviews I surveyed, each of which praises the intelligent script and superb acting elicited by British director Roger Michell (Persuasion, Notting Hill), not one mentions the scenes containing depictions of Jesus. To my mind, the reviewers miss the crucial point: that in order to disrupt the escalating violence of revenge we must follow the example of Christ, who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.
In Changing Lanes, the vendetta changes lanes only when both Gavin and Doyle independently decide to take the form of servants, meeting the needs of the other rather than serving their own self-interests. After Doyle returns the red folder and asks forgiveness, Gavin tells his wife that he wants to start doing pro bono work and "live on the edge." Then, in an echo of the scene in which Doyle had faxed his words back to him—"Better luck next time"— Gavin speaks his wife's words back to her: "Can you live there with me?"
By the end of the movie we realize we have been given an exemplum of the Serenity Prayer that we heard chanted at Doyle's Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." Changing Lanes suggests that knowing the difference between competing definitions of the "right" derives from knowing the Christ, who might well say to us "Can you live there with me?"