' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: William Hurt

Thursday, March 17, 2022

In Memoriam: William Hurt

“Changing Lanes” will be twenty years old in a couple months, a 2002 thriller directed by Roger Michell (who passed away last September at the age of 65) which despite a terrible (tacked on?) ending and occasional on-the-nose tendencies (set on Good Friday) is one of the new century’s thrillers that transcends middling, very good verging on great (argh, that possibly tacked on ending!). I have always loved it, in part because Michell transformed it into an actor’s showcase, not just for the leads (Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Affleck) but the supporting players: a spooky Dylan Baker, an idiosyncratic Toni Collette, a smug Sydney Pollack, an unctuous Richard Jenkins, a steadfast Kim Staunton, an immortal Amanda Peet (a mid-movie bolt of thunderous understated brilliance), an impeccably clerical-ish Matt Malloy. And then there is William Hurt who in the climax of his three-scene arc embodies what Sheila O’Malley has called the pulse of the playwright, illuminating every single thematic element of the film as a whole. 

“Changing Lanes” turns on two men – recovering alcoholic Doyle (Jackson) and hotshot lawyer Gavin (Affleck) – getting into a car accident on their way to NYC court. Rather than handling their post-crash business “the right way” as Doyle insists in his trying to be a better man, Gavin offers a blank check and drives off, inadvertently leaving behind the power of appointment he needs to present to a judge…or else. That power of appointment falls into the hands of Doyle and drives the action with Gavin doing anything to get it back and Doyle getting back at Gavin when he sees what that everything entails. This daylong feud escalates from something resembling reality to something entirely apart from it, which is not a flaw but a mirror of the men’s emotional journey, a living manifestation of the social contract being broken, reason giving way to anarchy, elucidated by Doyle’s AA Sponsor (Hurt) in a scene toward the end. “What you saw today,” the Sponsor says referring to so many preceding events that would have been mere overheated thriller elements under any other circumstances, “is that everything decent is held together by a covenant. An agreement not to go batshit.” It’s a deftly impassioned line reading of insistence, not anger, like he’s giving the keynote address at some social contract theory conference and peppering it with a bit of profanity to really get his point across.

Michell shoots this sequence in an alternating series of reverse shots and a medium long shot from the side, the Sponsor initially giving Doyle space and then getting right in his face, underlining his outpouring’s urgency. And though Jackson mostly downplays to highlight Hurt’s big moment, when Doyle insists that despite it all he did not have a drink, that not having a drink is “the point,” Hurt has his character just sort of disbelievingly take this in and then pivot, a teacher who has spent an entire semester instructing his pupil the 50 state capitals and now realizes the pupil doesn’t even know Topeka, in one ear and out the other, appallingly exclaiming “God” in contempt of a man who has forsaken Steps 2 and 3. Then he pivots again and lets Doyle have it. 

Because even if the movie has evinced what the Sponsor is about to say, that Doyle is “addicted to chaos”, no one has said it, no one has said it to Doyle, and now the Sponsor does. And Jackson’s reaction, his head turning ever so slightly, his eyes palpably widening, illustrates the “moment of clarity” he only refers to in “Pulp Fiction.” “For some of us,” the Sponsor explains, “it’s coke. For some of us, it’s bourbon. But you? You got hooked on disaster.” And the way Hurt chews up that last word – “disaster” – and spits it out becomes diagnosis as disgust. And then there is a pause. Because Doyle has nothing to say. And then a cut back to Hurt who has his Sponsor just look at Doyle with no expression, like he’s taking one last look because he’s been made to realize this is the end of their road, and then a “What can you do?” pursing of the lips and a heartbreaking shrug. He turns away and looks at his watch, an enormous bit of actorly business that I like to imagine Hurt added himself. He’s offering both an exit to this scene and a bridge to the next, suggesting the character is late for something, but which more deftly communicates this – I don’t have any more time to waste on you. 

William Hurt died on Sunday March 13th. He was 71.

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