The last time I saw a movie called Crash, it was about people with a sexual fetish for car accidents, and it was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. Now there’s another movie with the same title, and this one draws an allegory between car accidents and race relations. It’s also a much, much, much better film. Director/co-writer Paul Haggis got an Oscar nomination for writing the screenplay to Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby and this project solidifies his status as one of the hottest, most talented people working in Hollywood right now.
Crash reminded me very much of Steven Soderbergh’s great Traffic in that both pictures feature about a dozen characters in multiple story lines that examine an important social issue from many perspectives. Brendan Fraser plays Rick, a proudly liberal Los Angeles district attorney who, along with his wife Jean (Sandra Bullock) is carjacked by two young black men (Larenz Tate and rapper Chris “Ludacris” Bridges). As a safety precaution, Jean demands the locks on the house be changed. When she sees that a tattooed young Latino man is doing the job, she assumes that he is a gang member who will make a copy of their key and “give it to all his homeys.” Rick, meanwhile, is worried about how news of the carjacking will affect his support in the black community.
Matt Dillon plays Officer Ryan, a racist LAPD cop who harasses an African-American couple, Cameron and Christine (Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton), whom he has just pulled over. Much to the chagrin of his partner (Ryan Phillippe), Ryan sexually fondles the woman during what is supposed to be a routine frisking. This causes unexpected problems for the couple: Cameron feels emasculated after his wife takes him to task for not standing up to the cop. Later on, Ryan and the woman have a fateful second encounter. Meanwhile, Don Cheadle plays a homicide detective investigating a white cop who may be responsible for murdering three black cops. Or is it something more than it seems?
The movie also finds room for that Latino locksmith, a Middle Eastern store owner, a Hispanic cop (Jennifer Esposito), and an Asian couple. Like those just mentioned, each of these characters has his or her own story line. All in all, there are about a dozen different stories being told here. Rather than being confusing, the different plot threads compliment each other in a meaningful fashion.
While I have described the characters and some of the basic story elements, I have also left a great deal out. Part of the power of Crash is that it connects the characters and story arcs in ways you don’t anticipate. The smartest thing Paul Haggis does is to confound our expectations. He sets up certain scenes so that we think we know how they will pay off; then he does the opposite of what we anticipate. One of the really cool things is that, because of the way the story is structured, you don’t fully realize its power until you have time to think about it later on. Sitting the theater, I knew I was watching a really good movie, but pondering it on the drive home allowed the impact of each character’s journey to sink in. The film stays with you in ways that few of them do.
The interesting thing about the characters in Crash is that none of them are all good or all bad. There’s lots of gray area here. Characters who seem unsympathetic turn out to have redemptive qualities, while characters who seem heroic turn out to have surprising flaws. The point Haggis seems to be making is that, when it comes to race, we all have potential prejudices under the right circumstances. At the same time, we also have a basic underlying humanity that is capable of saving us from our most improper instincts.
The story, by necessity, features a lot of coincidences. In a city as large as L.A. it’s kind of amusing that the same dozen people keep running into each other. But it has to be this way because otherwise there’d be no way for the film to make its points. The beauty of it is that, no matter how technically contrived, the story flows in such a way that we’re never bothered by it. Everything makes total sense.
The performances are really good in this film. I’d like to single out two of them in particular. Sandra Bullock’s recent movies (Two Weeks Notice, Miss Congeniality 2) have been so awful that I was starting to think that I didn’t like her anymore. As the nervous Jean, Bullock pulls off the best performance of her career, displaying dramatic skills that I never even imagined she might possess. Let’s hope that her future career choices remain this ambitious. Then there’s Matt Dillon, who totally brings three dimensions to a character that might otherwise be cardboard. Dillon has to deliver a monologue in which he explains his character’s intense feelings toward African-Americans toward a black social worker. On one hand, Officer Ryan’s hatred bubbles inexcusably to the surface; on the other hand, his argument might actually have garnered some sympathy from the social worker if he didn’t deliver it in such an angry way. This is a hard, hard role to play and Dillon does it perfectly.
Crash is always entertaining and provocative, never depressing. It doesn’t try to beat you over the head with a message, but rather lets you draw your own conclusions. The ending doesn’t even try to tie everything up into a neat little package; it’s up to you, based on what you’ve seen, to conclude what happens to these characters next. Comparing race relations to automobile accidents seems an appropriate metaphor. There are millions of cars on the road, and occasionally two of them collide. Similarly, we have people of many different races living in America; once in a while they bump into each other. In other words, it’s gonna happen. The question, asked so remarkably by this brave film, is how are we going to deal with it? There are no answers here, but Crash certainly suggests that hope exists.
( out of four)
Crash is rated R for language, sexual content, and some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 51 minutes.
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