Tightly scripted by Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin (Altman's "The Player"), British director Roger Michell ("Notting Hill") keeps the pace brisk but controlled, keeping the actors and the action from spinning out of control. Incredibly, "Changing Lanes" never feels overburdened, even as the revenge that Affleck's and Jackson's characters wreak on each other becomes more and more devastating.
It all begins innocently enough with a fender-bender as young Manhattan attorney Gavin Banek (Affleck) rushes to a court hearing. The man he runs into, Doyle Gibson (Jackson), is also on a mission of great importance; he's struggling to put his life and family back together. Angry words are exchanged both men are in a rage over being delayed from their appointments. Quietly, unobtrusively, the seeds of the intricate revenge plot are planted.
Much like Sam Raimi's "A Simple Plan" a few years back, "Changing Lanes" deals with how good some people can be, despite mounting circumstances and pressure for them to do very, very bad things. Amazingly for a big-budget studio release, the movie not only willingly operates in a moral universe, it strives to do so. That alone makes "Changing Lanes" a rare treat.
As Gavin and Doyle plot their revenge, using whatever weapons are available to them, natural and wholly believable consequences follow with the sureness of Old Testament canons. "An eye for an eye" becomes a vile expression of desperation. Balancing the nasty turn of events, the screenwriters avoid the cliche of strapping each man with a sidekick who eggs him on. Instead, Gavin and Doyle are given best friends with both a conscience and a voice of reason. Doyle's is his AA sponsor (William Hurt); Gavin's is his ex-lover and co-worker (Toni Collette).
In his most riveting performance since "Pulp Fiction," Jackson plays against type here, making Doyle a hothead without a trace of hipness about him. Affleck, who has a tendency to coast through some roles with superficial ease, crafts a focused, full-bodied performance as the increasingly vulnerable Gavin.
The stars and movie receive a great deal of help from a terrific supporting cast. Besides Hurt and Collette, Sydney Pollak shines as Gavin's father-in-law and boss, and Amanda Peet, coming off a series of bad movies, nails the part of Gavin's greedy, cold-blooded wife.
Scripted and directed with rare intelligence, "Changing Lanes" explores morally murky areas in a way American films have ignored since the '70s. And the movie accomplishes that without ever sacrificing its mounting tension or its talented cast. Fasten those seatbelts and keep hands inside the vehicle at all times, this is one emotional moral rollercoaster ride. S