Crash (2005)

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 09/23/04 02:03:29

4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2004 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Robert Altman probably sits back and wonders sometimes where all his credit is for modernizing the mega-cast plotline. A half dozen stories or more all bumping into one another where characters are stars in one plotline and supporting players in others. Altman’s Short Cuts was a blueprint, Tarantino hipped it up with Pulp Fiction and every hack to auteur has tried it out from romantic comedies to melodrama. TV veteran Paul Haggis is the latest to offer his contribution and it feels less about the gimmick by actually having something to say about racism and fear in this country. Crash may just be missing out on greatness by not going completely epic, but in terms of quality it certainly ranks somewhere in-between 2 Days in the Valley and Magnolia and that’s not too shabby.

Over a series of 48 hours we will catch up to where the film begins, on a fender-bender that warrants a dead body found on the side of the road. A passing detective (Don Cheadle) and his gal pal partner (Jennifer Esposito) just happen to be on the scene and is one of many literal and figurative crashes that occur within the Los Angeles framework.

- The District Attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his wife (Sandra Bullock) are carjacked sending her into an anger-filled paranoia about her safety.

- A black TV director (Terrence Dashon Howard) and his light-skinned wife (Thandie Newton) are harassed by a fed-up cop (Matt Dillon) and his more sensitive partner (Ryan Phillippe).

- Lower-class black youth (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) espouses his “white devil” conspiracies and their offensive stereotypes while still pulling criminal acts with his friend (Larenz Tate).

- A Persian storeowner (Shaun Toub) constantly mistaken for an Arab buys a gun to protect his American dream over the objections of his daughter (Bahar Soomekh).

- A Mexican locksmith, confused for being nothing more than a “Homie” is actually quite the Homer and a loving family man.

Nothing in those labels is shied away from in Crash. Since language is absolutely crucial to the earshot of simplifying racism, the screenplay never approaches it for shock value but a normal conversational tone that shows these characters never thinking about what they say; they just say it. Sometimes it’s humorous, normally out-of-line but occasionally frightfully true in their reality. Never is that more the case than Ludacris’ hateful rant against Caucasians only to immediately confirm their fears as fact. The film’s biggest laugh is actually a generational slam about where a certain ethnic group parks their cars.

Should you be weary of laughing? Not necessarily since in the context, of which it’s spoken, is meant as both a joke and a parting shot at a lover. The person who says it is not inherently racist; in fact he may be the most ethical human being in the lot that we follow. One of Haggis’ strengths is to never pigeonhole racism as mere one-sided hate and how the heat of the moment should never allow anyone to be branded a racist for the rest of their days. A bad day, a cut-off in traffic or a previous traumatic experience can lead anyone into the safe haven of racial profiling and those who will use the race card against such people can be just as hypocritical since it’s such a powerful one against amateur poker players.

Crash’s story structure may have one coincidence too many for skeptics (both involving traffic malfeasances) but that shouldn’t allow them to dismiss such happenstance as an overriding suspension of their belief in the material. Magnolia was ALL about such twists of fate but naturally there are going to be more than one connection between this group of people. That’s why we’re following them in the first place instead of Joe the Dumptruck Driver. Even the initial silliness of a fate such as Bullock’s makes more sense than Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic” when you apply it to the perspective of her fears.

Performances are terrific across-the-board, with only Fraser being denied much of a presence. Keith David, Tony Danza and William Fichtner all pop-in single scenes and do great work fanning the flames. Crash might have been served better by actually adding a further half-hour or so to the proceedings to flesh out a few of the plot strands. Surely there’s enough material in our society to stir the kettle a bit more before serving. But Haggis certainly makes his point, turning the screws on a nation’s anxieties and helping light the way of personal responsibility through conversation and, if need be, a little divine intervention, whomever your divine may be. Crash is bold, scary, moving and ultimately very sad that there may be no final answers until our time is up.

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