If not for the title having already been used for David Cronenberg's provocative 1997 film, "Crash" would be the perfect title for Paul Haggis' auspicious directing debut, a penetrating, at times uncomfortably candid, portrait of present-day race relations. Haggis, a relatively new player in Hollywood, is on a roll, having previously written 2004's Academy Award-winning "Million Dollar Baby
" and now making a film of his own that is no less absorbing and ambitious. A free-floating narrative of interweaving characters, some strangers and others unexpectedly crossing paths, "Crash" is reminiscent of Robert Altman (1993's "Short Cuts") by way of Paul Thomas Anderson (1999's "Magnolia
"), all the while finding a deeply-felt personal identity all its own.
Set over a 36-hour period in the Los Angeles area, the people on display in "Crash" all have unshakable experiences that, whether it be a scapegoat or not, circle back to the topic of race and ethnicity as it relates to them. When prominent Brentwood DA Rick (Brendan Fraser) and housewife Jean (Sandra Bullock) are hijacked and get their car stolen by thugs Anthony (Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges) and Peter (Larenz Tate), it is the catalyst that brings to the forefront some deep-seated issues Jean has been harboring underneath the surface of her comfortable lifestyle. Immediately insisting on getting their locks changed, Jean is further rattled when a Latino locksmith, Daniel (Michael Pena), is sent to do the job. Looks can be deceiving, however, as Daniel is actually a model citizen and happily married father who has recently moved his family to a better neighborhood to escape the violence outside their doors. When a language barrier prevents Daniel from successfully explaining to Persian shop owner Farhad (Shaun Toub) that his doors need to be replaced, and his store is subsequently broken into and destroyed, it sets into motion a potentially tragic chain of events.
Meanwhile, across town, well-to-do African American couple Cameron (Terrence Howard) and Christine (Thandie Newton) are understandably disturbed and angered when they are pulled over by a pair of LAPD officers, Ryan (Matt Dillon) and Hanson (Ryan Phillippe), and Christine is sexually assaulted by the racist Ryan. Hanson promptly requests a partner reassignment, a decision he believes is for the better but that leads him toward a life-altering event that will forever change him. Also figuring into the story is homicide detective Graham (Don Cheadle), partner and lover of Ria (Jennifer Esposito), who becomes worried when he discovers his mother (Beverly Todd) has returned to a nasty drug habit.
An unsettling morality tale that refuses to offer any pat and easy answers, "Crash" briefly starts off with the threat of heavy-handedness before defying expectations and transcending toward something altogether deeper and more uncompromisingly emotional. Indeed, this may be one of the most accurate, albeit ugly, depictions of the state of race relations in the United States one has ever seen put to film. No race or ethnicity is overlooked, be it white, black, Asian, Latino, or Middle-Eastern, and each one is treated to a concise, realistic, and fair viewpoint of how they fit into the grand scheme of the country they reside in.
One of the most stunningly realized aspects of "Crash" is the way each character, all with limited screen time, is given an often surprising three-dimensional arc. Some characters that start off looking like bad people unexpectedly garner the viewer's sympathies after it is understood where they are coming from and discovered that even they are capable of goodness in their heart. Likewise, other characters originally portrayed in a positive light are recognized as being capable of making bad choices themselves, forcing the viewer to reassess who they are and why they choose to do what they do. When all is said and done, audiences may be both ashamed and blindsided by just how much they relate to and see themselves in the flawed, achingly real human beings seen within.
Although the amount of coincidences demanded in a narrative in which the characters' lives frequently interconnect occasionally strain the barriers of plausibility, they are all there for a reason and treated with appreciative precision to make a point. For a 100-minute motion picture with over fifteen central roles, screenwriters Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco have done a splendid job of juggling them into a tapestry that, together, feels complete. This is the rare movie in which a longer running time would have been not only beneficial, but also more than welcome; these are fascinating people that you find yourself wanting to see more of their lives.
Sequences of raw and stunning dramatic power flash across the screen at an assured clip, and there are no uninteresting vignettes (as is often the case with ensemble pictures) to bog down the momentum of the stronger plot lines. When Christine is involved in a car accident and is trapped upside down in her seat, her savior turns out to be the last person she wants to help her. Through this ordeal, however, they make a brief connection as unanticipated and disturbing as it is genuinely touching. Another scene in which Cameron is unjustly accosted by police likely because of the color of his skin and makes the choice to not be pushed around any longer is vividly unnerving in its quiet, high-throttle honesty.
The sprawling cast is superlative and the performances are just as exquisite, bar none. Each of them do work that is worthy of being singled out, from Sandra Bullock's (2005's "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous
") against-type turn as a woman who uses racism as a way of displacing the emptiness she feels in the rest of her life; to Matt Dillon's (2002's "Deuces Wild
") courageously unaffected performance as the disgruntled and frustrated Officer Ryan; to Ryan Phillippe (2001's "Gosford Park
") in the strongest role of his career as the fleetingly naive Officer Hanson; to rap artist Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges (2003's "2 Fast 2 Furious
") and Larenz Tate (2003's "A Man Apart
"), standouts as a couple of wayward carjackers headed toward major trouble; to a remarkably cogent Thandie Newton (2002's "The Truth About Charlie
"), as the sexually assaulted Christine; to the always reliable Don Cheadle (2004's "Hotel Rwanda
") as the misunderstood Graham, who makes flawless acting look as easy as breathing.
An unforgettable series of snapshots into a modern world that still breeds unavoidable prejudices toward anyone different from ourselves, "Crash" is an important motion picture that demands viewing in high schools across the country. Besides that, it is an absolutely riveting, highly charged dramamature, open-minded, multilayered, and nothing short of thought-provoking. The subject matter director Paul Haggis touches upon and explores, and the way in which the ending chillingly suggests a circular motion of fear and hate within society that shows no signs of being corrected will simmer underneath the skin of the viewer long after the movie is over. The people in "Crash," warts and all, and whether we want to admit it or not, symbolize all of us, as a nation and as a world, which may be the most profoundly alarming notion of all.