“Hey, Osama, plan a jihad on your own time!”
The writer of the brilliant Million Dollar Baby sits in the director's chair for this confrontational tale of entwined lives and racist attitudes, and wrings virtually every sentence uttered within it bone-dry, in an effort to compound his message. Set over two days during the run up to Christmas in LA, Crash charts the circumstances of a number of multi-cultural people from all walks of life as they struggle with their chance meetings with one another, and the situations that then transpire. For some, the experience will be life-altering, for others it may only enhance their already bubbling beliefs and harboured hostilities. But the clear intention for Haggis, who also co-wrote the film, is to leave the audience touched by what they have seen and heard, and to ponder on the sad truth of their own prejudices. Just how successful he is will depend entirely upon how you view the film. If you see it as a modern-day fable, with the neon-wonderland of LA as a microcosm of the world community, then it will probably work surprisingly well. But, if it is the gritty, realistic approach to cultural differences and our lack of tolerance, one and all, towards them that you seek to have explored, then I think you will be sorely disappointed.
“If there's anybody round here who should be scared ... it's .”
Plunging us into this multi-stranded tale of disparate connections and emotional collisions, Haggis is forced to adopt a Robert Altman approach, similar to the likes of Short Cuts, or Magnolia - but here, though, the use of contrivance is over-ripe, and the narrative hideously riddled by coincidences that, by any stretch of the imagination, are designer-made purely to perpetuate the interplay of these afflicted characters. With the plot-staging so meticulously calculated, and the merging of events so painstakingly choreographed by necessity, how can the film possibly retain a sense of natural flowing rhythm? Well, Haggis does achieve a haunting poeticism with his skilful use of photography and music, crafting a dark and grim fairytale that delivers more in mood, than observation. And the movie becomes a character-driven force of nature with some awesome powerhouse performances, despite the false-sounding, eye-rolling obviousness of the script. We get the interwoven kinetics of the DA and his wife (Brendan Fraser and a very subdued Sandra Bullock) with the world-rhapsodising car-jackers (Chris “Ludicris” Bridges and Larenz Tate) who pontificate on the state of society's mistreatment of poor blacks, whilst indulging in exactly the kind of behaviour that stereotypes them in the affluent white mind's eye. We get Don Cheadle's inverted racism when dealing with a redneck, trigger-happy cop and the political and professional ramifications of his actions. We get an outstanding Thandie Newton struggling with the groping harassment of Matt Dillon's overtly racist and sexist cop and her TV producer husband's ticking time-bomb identity crisis. But the story that works best, containing the emotional and dramatic core of the film, is the plight of the Iranian shopkeeper (played exquisitely by Shaun Toub) who, after abuse and victimisation, just cannot take it any longer and is very dangerously, and very credibly, on the edge. He has reached the point where he takes everything as either an insult, or an act of aggression and his unfortunate conflict with loving father and hardworking Latino locksmith Daniel (an affecting Michael Pena) is built on a simple language barrier misunderstanding, but the eye-of-the-storm consequences that come roaring out of it could be catastrophic.
“Wait a minute. That Barry Gibb dude is a cop?”
To be perfectly blunt, and honest, much of the first half of the film plays like a very non-PC black comedy. Literally every line spoken, and certainly every event that takes place is variation on racist confrontation, with absolutely no let up whatsoever. From a car's rear-ending to a simple doctor's appointment, from the buying of a gun to a cop's request for new assignment - everything is laced with sadly cynical, or guiltily amusing verbals that don't so much bludgeon Haggis's them home, but hammer and chip at it incessantly. For this entire first act I found it incredibly hard to believe just why Crash had so much praise heaped upon it. The racist spit-spatting tick-tocks from one scene to another and one mouth to another until it becomes a yawn-inducing drone. I don't know about you, but I don't need a two-hour movie to tell me that EVERYBODY is, in some way, racist and intolerant, and it's just the degree that separates us. There's even a supposedly clever and ironic remark riffing on the colour of a jacked vehicle. It's a though Haggis and co-writer Bobby Moresco have decided that this will be their one-stop-shopping of ethnic-issues, so they'd best throw everything in at once.
“I'm gonna pin a medal on an Iraqui named Saddam?”
Actually, there are times when the Robert Altman influence is absorbed by a sort of wanton Woody Allen-ism, in that the main theme is confronted in all its sometimes ugly, sometimes comical guises throughout the entire structure of the narrative, just playing every conceivable variation in episodic fashion. Substitute sex for racism and you have a more sombre take on Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Too Afraid To Ask. This is a shame, because the stellar cast sure do deliver the goods. This film was touted as being powerful and thought-provoking but, barring one episode that is exactly and perfectly just those things to a tee, and much more on that later - it comes across as actually quite slight and almost gentle, as if afraid to confront the really hard and nasty matters that shadow its encounters. The car-thieves are highly intellectual and hardly run-of-the-mill bad boys, the dirty danger of Dillon's tactics are double-edged with a sympathetic nature and dependability when the going gets tough. Ryan Phillippe's moralistic stance is ridiculously pitched in the most appallingly contrived set-piece of the film. I don't want to say too much about this terrible scene other than it contains a car chase and a totally unbelievable set of interactions that, even in the lyrical realm of fable, seem composed of pure, undiluted corn and, if it wasn't for the truly harrowing sequence that follows a little later, I would perhaps have given up on the film at this point altogether and you would have seen something a lot lower than a 7 in the movie rating for this review. But, without any trace of overstatement and none of that sycophantic critical gush or hyperbole either, the denouement to the shopkeeper/locksmith confrontation is one of the most disturbing and beautiful moments in cinema that I've seen for a long time.
“It's a really good cloak.”
This plot strand is wonderfully acted by all its participants - the shopkeeper, his struggling wife and nurse daughter, and Daniel's compassionate working stiff and his adorable young girl - and its inevitable conflagration is a strategic missile ploughing through the tense atmosphere of the film with a tragic vitality that leaves all the other stories in its emotion-drenched dust. It is also a gorgeously cinematic moment that bestows upon it a fabulously fatalistic sheen, a breathtaking tracking shot of a gun in a trembling hand and a gut-wrenching sense of clutching despair. What makes it work so well is the fact that we sympathise and emotionally connect with all the characters caught up in this particular maelstrom. We understand the desperation that has driven the shopkeeper to this place, at this time. We also understand completely the lack of guilt of a poor unfortunate father caught up in a crazy spiral of events that are way beyond his control. Those of you who caught this at the cinema will know exactly what I'm talking about here, but when that moment came I felt the air literally sucked out of the room. I felt my heart stop. The intensity of this single moment is actually painful to experience. This kind of physical and emotional reaction to a scene acted out on celluloid is far too rare a commodity these days and, despite my reservations concerning much of the rest of the film, I totally applaud Paul Higgis for actually managing to move me so deeply and irrevocably that the moment played out across the darkened screen of my mind throughout many sleepless hours that followed. Now, I realise that one fabulous scene does not a great movie make, but the canny little stunt that Haggis pulls with this thunderhead sequence is to make all of those connections and interweavings coalesce into one dreamy, textured kaleidoscope of thoughts and passions, fears and absurd prejudices. Suddenly, the fable aspect of this morality play returns, and the intricate beauty of the plot shines through. Certainly, I was too quick to judge the first act and, having seen the movie twice now (the afore-mentioned scene still damaging me) I feel that the movie is a sure-fire grower. The script still seems blatant, the circumstances still too unbelievable, but the essence of the unfolding drama and tragedy is permeated with such underplayed hope that you would be a colder person for not having walked and driven these same streets with this wonderful cast.
“The closest you ever got to being black, Cameron, was watching The Cosby Show.”
By turns superlative and poignant, ridiculous and superficial, Crash is a street-play pasted onto film. Some of the dilemmas are true to life, but it is the inanely-created reactions that characters have, or the choices that they are presented with - Ryan Philippe's boss saying that flatulence is only solution to riding with a racist partner, or burning to death if a touchy-feely, white-trash cop can't free you from your bonds - that drag down what could possibly have been a classic of contemporary societal struggle. Still, LA looks amazing. Again. Taking the Michael Mann book of lighting and cinematography, Haggis and DOP, J. Michael Muro, transform the sprawling vast flatness of the City of Angels, into a dreamland of coruscating light and shadow, conforming to the visual elegance that Hollywood longs to inspire in itself. Long, neon-stippled streets recede into a picturesque twilight. Atmospherically languid tracking shots evolve into deeply personal close-ups and, often, there is a nice spiralling camera that circles characters, as if skirting around the bubbles with which they barrier themselves off from the world. Mark Isham's outstanding ambient score filters the tensions and the angst, becoming a calming swirl of beauty that matches the visuals perfectly. But, for all this lilting sound and imagery, the dialogue keeps threatening to drag Crash back into the mire. Oh, it's very cool to have lots of eminently quotable lines for later recital with your mates, but the problem is that a lot of this stuff is just not realistic. People simply do not have the ability to spout such clever ironies to one another as matter-of-factly as this and the car-jackers are definitely spat from the same pod of soliloquy as Jackson and Travolta from Pulp Fiction.
“She's my angel. My angel.”
But Crash provides some standout performances, just the same. Thandie Newton well and truly extinguishes her plastic bimbo from M.I:2 with a riveting portrayal here, as does Dillon, despite not having that much screen time, overall. Cheadle, as ever, exudes gravity and conviction and Fraser underplays his part with a likeably less goofy approach than usual. But, of course, the accolade of Man Of The Movie must go to Shaun Toub, whose pushed-beyond-the-limits essaying of a simple man just trying to get by, hits all the right notes. If I take anything away from Crash, it is something within his stunned and confused anguish as he stares down at the gun in his hand. The re-discovery of a soul amid the coldness of an uncaring metropolis. His story, alone, contains true hope ... and a little of that magic found only in fable.