Film review by: Witney Seibold
The story goes that writer/director Paul Haggis (of Million Dollar Baby recent fame) was carjacked by two young black men, and, in response to his feelings of violation and outrage, as well as a startling streak of racism he never thought he had, he wrote the screenplay to Crash (No relation to the Cronenberg film of the same name, although this film would have been a lot more fun had there been more car wreck eroticism). It is the conceit of Crash that everyone living in L.A., constantly exposed to other cultures and races yet still essentially staying with our own, has this Haggisian racist streak, and we need to face up to it, or else we’ll just end up committing extreme acts out of our character.
This is a conceit that I disagree with, but more on that in a second.
Crash is an ensemble piece about various levels of race crises. There is the wealthy black couple (Thandie Newton and Terrence Dashon Howard) who is pulled over by the racist white LAPD cop (Matt Dillon) and his reluctant partner (Ryan Phillippe). There are the pair off car thieves (Ludacriss and Larenz Tate) discussing the burdens of being black. There is the wealthy white Brentwood couple (Sandra Bullock and Brendan Fraser) who bicker about what to do in the aftermath of being carjacked; she finds she has hate for just about everybody. There is the black cop (Don Cheadle) fighting the “token minority” system. And there is the saintly locksmith (Michael Peña) who is badgered by the frustrated Persian shopowner. Oh and, for Trek fans, Marina Sirtis, Troi herself, appears very briefly as the shopowner’s wife. Most of these stories have violent (but, in many cases standoffishly violent) climaxes.
That every one of the characters reacts to every others’ race first and foremost is an interesting and vital place to start a drama, so this film starts very strong. However, as the film chugs along, we begin to get the feeling that Haggis feels there is nothing deeper to human interaction (at least in L.A.) than race.
Racism springs from deeper fears and alienation than mere race. Fears toward which “Crash” can’t even get close to. I’m not saying that every character needs to have some great epiphany in which they realize their real fears and problems, and react accordingly, but a little more self-realization than the ZERO amount we’re given would have at least gotten on my good side.
(Also, the resemblances to P.T. Anderson’s choppy-yet-brilliant 1999 film Magnolia cannot be overlooked. They are both ensemble dramas, they both take place over a single day. They are both about poor communication. They are both L.A. love letters. And they both end with a magical “rain” of sorts. Hm…)
“Crash” ultimately begins to feel like a high-school-level talent show assignment on racism in Los Angeles. It’s a preachy, sophomoric, immature view on the problems of race and racism. The people in “Crash” aren’t racists with real-life motivations, but mere ciphers who enact robotic and melodramatic racist behavior as defining features. No one is the least bit more sophisticated than they need to be. We need connection, and sometimes the only way to do that is to crash into one another. Snore.
A note after the fact: “Crash” ended up winning the 2005 Academy Award for Best Picture. I can only chalk this up to Lion’s Gate Films’ ultra-aggressive marketing tactic of giving every single academy member a free copy of “Crash” on video. They were a giant buzz-making machine, and forced an Oscar on themselves, beating out “Brokeback Mountain.” What a crock.
-May 6th, Lion’s Gate Films