Crash (2004)

Thandie Newton and Matt Dillon pose for a movie poster that promises a simplistic take on race relations. "Crash."

Directed by Paul Haggis. Screenplay by Paul Haggis & Bobby Moresco; story by Paul Haggis. Produced by Don Cheadle, Paul Haggis, Mark R. Harris, Bobby Moresco, Cathy Schulman, Bob Yari. Music  by Mark Isham. Photographed by J. Michael Muro. Edited by Hughes Winborne. Production designed by Laurence Bennett. Starring Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, William Fichtner, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe, Larenz Tate, Michael Peña, Shaun Toub.

Crash, a very special film about the dangers of bigotry, is basically an exercise in search of a more worthy application. We can agree that racism is bad, and we can also agree that a good film can be made from exploring that topic. But I also submit that just because a film explores that subject does not make it great, and that thought is useful for evaluating Crash. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not very bad—it’s just seriously, seriously un-great.

The film employs a pointedly multi-ethnic cast and puts them to work in a series of interwoven stories, a beloved device that has informed films like Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon, Richard Linklater’s Slacker, and others. But the movie Crash most aspires to be is probably Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, especially in the way it yokes this collection of characters to a meditation on a Very Important Issue (in Traffic, it’s the drug trade). A comparison of the films is helpful, because Traffic only occasionally flirts with didactics, and tells three or four parallel stories that are not especially subtle, but at least they hint at subtleties. Crash, on the other hand, is greedy and tells maybe almost a dozen tediously interlocked plots, and that proves unwieldy within a two-hour running time. It sacrifices depth for breadth.

This may seem a little unfair. I understand the thicket of pre-packaged rationalization I am wandering into by suggesting that Crash is shallow. Haggis is clearly telling a parable here, and they typically do wear their messages on their sleeves. But there’s a difference between that and Crash’s methodology, which is to underline every statement, highlight every irony, signpost every direction, and generally remove any nuance that could slip by unnoticed. Because the film has so many scenes of racial anger, and because it cuts between so many of them, the film sustains an aggressive high pitch that is intentionally abrasive and exhausting. The overall effect is a film that consists of nothing but scenes of shouting—either one character to another, or sometimes the screenwriter/director, to us.

Here’s where we run down the list of characters. There’s Don Cheadle as a black L.A. detective, and Jennifer Esposito is his Salvadoran partner/lover, who helps him investigate a shooting. And there’s Brendan Fraser as the white Los Angeles D.A., and Sandra Bullock as his (also white) wife, who becomes fraught (understandably) after the couple experiences a carjacking. Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Larenz Tate are those two black carjackers (Tate is thoughtful and quiet, Bridges is a paranoid loudmouth). Matt Dillon and Ryan Phillippe are two white cops with different ideas about race, and Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton are the upper-class black couple that unluckily get pulled over by them one night. Michael Peña is a Hispanic locksmith who runs afoul of a Persian shop owner played by Shaun Taoub. Whew. There are other plots, but those are the basics. You may have noticed that I have not named any of these characters, because the names do not matter. The different races are what’s important—every character has his own reductive label. That is the film’s point, of course. So the script’s approach, to not depict these people as fully-rounded human beings, is either a crippling misstep or a masterstroke, take your pick.

A lot of things happen on this busy day in Los Angeles. Arguments. Murders. Car crashes and explosions. Breakups and breakdowns, self-betrayals and shattered worldviews. The film’s title comes from Cheadle, who pontificates in the opening that Los Angelinos are so disconnected that they yearn to smash into each other (either figuratively or literally) just to feel alive. This perhaps explains the in-your-face tone of the film, but by showing nothing but extremes, by adopting a theme of anger and admitting so few drops of hope or quiet, the film invites the observation that it is basically about a bunch of jerks.

That’s where the film’s web of characters annoys, not because it’s precious (though it is), but because it creates a closed system that rules out the existence of decency: every character in the film is to some degree a violent racist. Do all people harbor unwelcome prejudices? Yes, no question. But certainly people are sometimes more complicated than the film makes us out to be. Take poor Ryan Phillippe; in many respects, the way his storyline is fumbled cuts right to the heart of the film’s problems. He’s meant to be the noblest character on-screen, but he takes a dark turn later that is cold and mechanical in its mean-spirited construction. An earlier scene has Dillion, a racist, ominously lecturing Phillippe on how self-deluded he is, and he is correct, which leaves a bad taste in the mouth because Phillippe is not developed enough to be anything more than a stick figure waiting to be tarnished. By keeping him a blank everyman, Haggis erects an ode to nihilism in place of catharsis.

It didn’t have to be like that. Contrast this to the point that Mookie (Spike Lee) is brought to at the end of Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989). Just as inherently shocking, but in that film it’s earned, because we get to know who Mookie is, and how he feels, and why he does what he does at the end. In Crash we do not understand, because the film is convinced that spending ten minutes with each character is to get to know them. There’s no comment on human nature here, because Phillippe, due to his distance, feels scarcely human. If you wish to end bleakly, that’s fine, but to go there without taking the necessary steps doesn’t impress me.  And that kind of shoots Crash’s tries at profundity in the foot, because it’s so clearly a rigged game, with mathematics in place of organic storytelling. There’s such deliberation in every step of the film that it’s hard to accept its self-conscious, forced terms.

One section of the film is especially phony, and that is the confrontation between the Taoub’s shopkeer and Peña’s locksmith. Peña comes to fix the man’s lock but a racial blowup leaves the job unfinished, and when the shop is robbed Taoub comes looking for revenge. Each step of the story is ludicrously contrived (how many professional work orders list a worker’s home address?), and the elements that come together involve a bedtime story, a gun, a box of mysterious bullets and a confrontation on a front lawn that is borderline offensive in how ruthlessly it panders and manipulates. The method in which it resolves can only work if all the characters are fools, up to and including the way one person does not immediately call the police and the way another dismisses a rational, easy-to-determine explanation in favor of superstition. How’s that for patronizing?

But perhaps the silliest thing about Crash is the fact that it talks too much. Speeches are made often, and even the more low-key dialogue is built in a tiresomely self-conscious, stylized manner. The film uses irony like a club instead of a scalpel, and is frequently concerned with annotating itself, as if afraid you don’t know what each scene is actually about. The sole exception is the climax of one story; the day after Dillon disgustingly fondles Newton at a traffic stop, he rescues her from a burning car crash, in a sequence that is…well, I’m sorry, it’s puzzling. Newton is traumatized by the fondling incident and so protests at first to let Dillon save her from the wreck. But eventually she relents, and they get out just as a massive explosion goes off that would have killed them both. And then they look meaningfully at each other, and then…well, what? I don’t understand. What are we supposed to get here? Is Dillon a changed man, because he’s learned it is inconvenient to assault women he may have to rescue from burning minivans? Has Newton learned you should shut up about your feelings when racist cops come to save your life? What is the point? Hello? Figures. The one time we do need the movie to explain what it’s thinking, it doesn’t.

Of course, the whole point of Crash is that it’s about emotional, confused high points. After all, it’s a parable. And pointedly a melodrama. So it’s all by design that its narrative is overcooked, its dialogue overwritten, its portrayal of human behavior sometimes inexplicable. By catching these people exclusively when they’re angry, the script allows its characters to be capable of anything, which in turn is meant to excuse everything. It makes them easier to move around like chess pieces, because hey, they’re not thinking clearly. By laying it on so thick, the characters are simplified into pinballs that bounce around each other. That’s the point, I get it. But drama without free will isn’t really exciting drama, is it?

Crash gets away with some of these problems, it must be said. It looks great, wonderfully shot by cinematographer J. Michael Muro. It’s remarkably well-edited by the brilliant Hughes Winborne, cutting between subplots effectively and cleverly. Some of the acting is terrific: Cheadle is a bastion of quiet dignity (even when he’s inspecting a past-due quart of milk), and Peña is very good as the locksmith. Bridges is given the most annoying flashy role as the motormouth carjacker, but he effectively channels that into a performance that knowingly flirts with self-parody; he finds a way to modulate a part that is over-the-top and thankless into something amusing, and then soulful.  And then there are the scene stealers like Keith David as a police lieutenant and the wonderful William Fichtner as an ADA—their moments of well-written politicking are maybe the best bits of the film, which is both a compliment, and a criticism, I think.

Paul Haggis, the writer/director, had a previous successful career as pure screenwriter: working in TV and features, and then received acclaim for writing Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, which is another film I found aggressively manipulative, but that’s another review. Crash is his second film as a director (after 1993’s obscure Red Hot), and it betrays a lot of the hallmarks of a journeyman still finding his feet: discomfort with some actors, thematic self-seriousness, and a script that has (regrettably) bit off far more than it can chew. I appreciate his gall in getting a project like this off the ground, and he obviously had his heart in the right place. But honestly, his more recent work is probably better, like 2007’s In the Valley of Elah or maybe even 2010’s The Next Three Days, if only because they are restrained, more respectful of limitations. With Crash, he tried to do too much, too fast, at too high a temperature, and the result is a muddled mess. We can twist ourselves into logical pretzels all day justifying this, but I think I’ll pass.

Nevertheless, I can’t begrudge Crash some of its qualities; it’s a frustratingly uneven film, but it’s high points are pretty good.  So we’ll give it a B-. Good. Not great, not by a long shot. The Oscars, of course, thought differently. Crash won the 2005 best picture Oscar, beating out Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night and Good Luck, and Munich. All good pictures. All better pictures, perhaps, than Crash. But what can you say? Oscar saw something here that perhaps I did too, once upon a time, but don’t anymore. What did they see? Why did they make their decision? I don’t know. Maybe they were angry. People do crazy things when they’re angry. Crazy, phony things.

GRADE: B-

NOTES: Technically, Crash is a 2005 film, and it was eligible for that year’s Oscars. But IMDB lists it as a 2004 film, so there you go.

Not to be confused with David Cronenberg’s Crash, although such a misunderstanding may cause a fun rental experience horror story.

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