First the good news: if you were at all worried that you may be forced to relive the sight of James Spader humping a leg wound, rest assured that this is not a re-release of David Cronenberg’s Crash. Now for the even better news: Paul Haggis’ Crash is a multi-strand drama in the tradition of Magnolia and Lantana that is exceptional on every level and one of the best films of the year so far.
The film opens at the scene of a minor car crash involving cops Cheadle and Esposito. It quickly transpires that the pile up has happened next to the discovery of a body by the roadside. Much like Lantana gave us the corpse in the bushes, so Crash uses the mystery of who it is and how they got there as a catalyst for an examination of two days in the lives of people in a city tearing itself apart over issues of race. We flash back to the previous day, and spend some quality time meeting those involved.
The District Attorney and his wife (Fraser and Bullock) are car-jacked by a pair of black youths (Bridges and Tate). Dillon plays Sergeant Ryan, a racist cop with a sick father, who pulls over and humiliates Cameron and Christine, an affluent black couple (Howard and Newton) who happen to be driving the same kind of car as the one stolen. His partner (Phillippe) is appalled at his behaviour and asks for a transfer. An Iranian shop owner (Toub) buys a gun to protect his business. Cheadle and Esposito investigate the shooting of a black cop by a white one, while his mother worries over his wayward younger brother. Daniel (Pena) is the Hispanic locksmith called in to beef up the security at the DA’s house, as well as trying to help out the shop owner with his broken door. These are just the basic starting points, but as paths cross and re-cross and destinies intersect (the details of which it would be unfair to reveal here) simmering racial tensions threaten to boil over into violence, retribution and tragedy.
From such a well worn formula, Haggis has managed to craft something truly original. Scenes you may think you’ve watched play out a dozen times before go places you’d never have dreamed. Often darkly humourous, Crash nevertheless throbs with power and resonance. Not only are we presented with breathtaking dramatic scenarios, we’re also forced to confront our own attitudes and ask ourselves how our preconceptions influence our everyday interactions, not forgetting that there are two sides to every story: Ryan may be a racist prick, but he’s still a heroic cop ; Daniel may be from a bad neighbourhood and have the appearance of a gang member, but he’s still an honest tradesman with a family ; Cameron may rightly feel indignant over Ryan’s abuse, but he’s still a wealthy voice actor who is reluctant for his audience to know he’s black.
The outstanding, sometimes unexpected, ensemble cast work wonders, with career best turns from Dillon, Bullock and Newton, while the ever watchable Cheadle anchors the film as just about the only character in the piece who seems to be blind to colour. But special praise should go to some of the unknown actors who deliver the most raw and devastating performances, in particular Toub and Pena, who share scenes which are almost unbearable in their emotional intensity. Filling out even the smallest roles are such delightful character actors as William Fichtner as a manipulative assistant DA and Keith David as Phillippe’s realist lieutenant.
Though it’s far from contrived, the number of coincidences occasionally threaten to get slightly out of control and begin to border on the statistically improbable, as you wonder how a small group of people in a city the size of Los Angeles can have so many interactions. But this is a minor quibble that can’t lessen the impact of a truly brilliant piece of cinema. It’s an unusual time of year for a film of this calibre to be released – an obvious Oscar contender, it may have made more sense if it were held back for the awards season. Still, summer movies have won Oscars before, so let’s hope Crash is remembered by the time March rolls around.
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