Changing Lanes

Though the advertising suggests it’s a suspense thriller, “Changing Lanes” is really a moral fable. It has as much character as it does plot, and far more introspection than explosions.

It’s about men with too much pride, and it’s about what revenge can do to a person. But it’s REALLY about contrasts, opposites and dichotomies. One of the protagonists is black and one is white, but the film’s point is that people are usually made up of various shades of gray.

An insurance salesman named Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson) is buying a house in a desperate attempt to stop his wife and kids from leaving him. On his way to a court hearing, he has a car accident with Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck), a high-powered lawyer with a wife and a mistress who is on his way to a different court hearing.

Gavin — selfish and cold but not yet as morally bankrupt as his corrupt bosses — doesn’t have time to deal with trading insurance information; he has to get to court so he can cheat a charitable foundation out of its money. He flees, and as a result of the accident, Doyle is late to his hearing. All is lost for him — except that in his haste, Gavin left an important file behind. It doesn’t occur to Doyle to use it as a bargaining chip — his mind doesn’t work that way — until Gavin contacts him later, panicked about the file and hoping Doyle has a good enough heart to return it.

Whether Doyle’s heart is good is not immediately at question. He attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings (the moral opposite of the ethical wasteland Gavin works in) and truly regrets having been a bad husband. Still, good men can be driven to do bad things. The film thought-provokingly reminds us of this while also demonstrating that the opposite is true: Gavin, a decent guy who has been guided down the wrong path, might be able to turn his life around and become one of the good ones.

The suspense of the film, written in a sure-footed and engaging manner by Michael Tolkin (“The Player,” “Deep Impact”) and first-timer Chap Taylor, is not in whether Gavin will get the file back, because we know his intentions with it are not good anyway. The suspense is in what choices Gavin and Doyle will make, and how those choices reflect who they are. Ethical quandaries do not normally make for riveting viewing, but Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”) directs with finesse and compassion, using hand-held cameras for intimacy while maintaining an appealing slickness.

Jackson and Affleck both could use a little more conviction in their performances. Affleck, in particular, is not entirely convincing in the last 20 minutes: His character flip-flops about seven times, but Affleck maintains the same tortured-soul facial expression.

Sydney Pollack and Richard Jenkins are excellent as Gavin’s bosses, and Toni Collette connects as Gavin’s secretary/girlfriend.

In the end, the film gives its characters a few too many shots at redemption, and it strains believability, particular since the rest of the movie rings so true. One accepts that in real life, it is never too late to do the right thing as a means of healing one’s soul — but a change of heart doesn’t usually wipe out the natural consequences of what you’ve already done. Still, that a high-profile movie with big-name actors could inspire such philosophical reflection is impressive.

B+ (; R, some harsh profanity, a little violence.)