Heralding Million Dollar baby screenwriter Paul Haggis' directorial debut, Crash caused somewhat of a stir by pipping Ang Lee's hotly tipped cowboy romance Brokeback Mountain to claim best picture glory at this year's Oscars. 2006 it seems, was the year of the race relations message picture, whilst those campaigning for a serious Academy acknowledgement of the homosexual cowboy genre may well have to lie in wait for “City Slickers 3: Liberace's Revenge” to roll into post-production. Despite so often getting it badly wrong when doling out the most prestigious of Academy Awards (Titanic and A Beautiful Mind anyone?), this year the Oscars got it spot on. Traffic is a muted triumph of a picture, and one richly deserving of its legacy as the years finest cinematic event. It comes as no surprise then, that Lion's Gate have chosen to ride the waves of critical acclaim and release a director's cut of the film. To cut to the chase regarding the quality of the cut, it adds a mere couple of minutes to the film. Going from (an admittedly less than photographic) memory, no noticeable additional scenes where visible to my eye, and the purpose of the new cut appears to be to elongate the odd scene and make the film less constricted and more spacious in certain area's. Or maybe just a pretty pointless tease to get you to double dip perhaps? Your call.
Set across 36 hours in Los Angeles, Crash focuses on the lives and tribulations of a group of disparate individuals within the landscape of race relations in post 9/11 America. The film follows a selection of characters; an immigrant storekeeper under racial duress, a Latin-American handyman struggling to offer his family a quality of life, a Afro-American detective in search of his brother, two petty thieves, a bigoted cop and his liberal partner, a DA and his paranoid wife, and a coloured director in a strained marriage. It weaves its tale by adopting the ensemble storytelling style popularised by Robert Altman whereupon a handful of small separate stories interrelate and combine over the course of the film. This style means Haggis can cover a lot of ground in his dissection and analysis of racial tensions. The downside to this format can be the disengagement of the audience from the events onscreen, or the suspension of belief in the coincidental occurrences that draw these incongruent threads together.
It's pleasing to see that, despite his relative inexperience behind the camera, Haggis possesses a wonderful gift for storytelling that ensures Crash never fails to grip despite its layered and often aloof approach. He's not quite up to Altman's level of mastery however, which means for all it's good points crash is never as effective as say, Nashville or Short Cuts. Most of the fault lies with the fact that the film as a whole just doesn't quite escape from the shackles of it's over worthiness, conjured up by some less than perfect scriptwork. If nothing else though, Crash makes us think, forces us into discourse. That alone, especially in the junk-food climate of major cinema today, is no small achievement.
Of course, some have been quick to hail Crash as some kind of modern day masterpiece. Well lets not get carried away with ourselves, so I'll dispel that myth right from the off. For me, to be credited a masterpiece a film has to be a nigh on perfect example of its type. I think Scorsese's Goodfellas is one for example. Or Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, or Hitch's Vertigo to name another Crash has too many flaws to be counted in the same breath as some of the truly great examples of cinema. What it is, is an exceedingly good film, a film which intrigues, entertains, and provokes thought throughout. But it's not without its problems.
In reality, such an incendiary topic as racial relations in modern day America is never going to be one where you can reach a truly satisfactory conclusion. Haggis realises this, and in his treatment of the subject he wisely stays away from any conventional classical narrative structure. Here is a snapshot of society rather than a definitive opinion on it. Ultimately though, you have to consider once the credits have rolled just what Haggis' estimation on the issues at hand is. Ironically enough, the film is book-ended with the same scene, of a car crash and a subsequent homicide investigation. This in many respects mirrors the film's circular structure, where there is no good, no bad, and crucially, no black or white answers.
While this refusal to play to conventional aspects of closure makes the film an excellent exploration of certain racial issues and preconceptions, it also raises the question of whether Haggis himself is frightened to nail any colours to the mast with regards to his characters. And herein lies the rub. In the film's noble attempts to avoid any stereotyping or one-dimensional protagonists, what it has a tendency to do is over liberalise the characters to the point that the film does appear to shy away from the gritty depiction it aspires to, and begins a lean towards simplified morality play. Here is a scenario where every actor has a devil and an angel on their shoulder. All those who commit sin are redeemable, and all those who walk a righteous path can slip to the dark side. In attempting this humanist approach where every character has this crisis of ethics, Haggis perhaps distracts attention away from really exploring the nuts and bolts of the issues and the unflinching realities of the situation. The issue is perhaps epitomised by his use of the two carjackers Larenz Tate and Chris Bridges. Their roles as the most eloquent and philosophical social commentators the film has to offer could very well be seen as an interesting attempt to subvert convention and provide an intellectual face to a character type so often depicted as nothing more than uneducated callous criminality. By the same breath though, these purveyors of social justice then nonsensically fuel the fire by being positioned in precisely the common stereotype that their dialogue rallies against. Perhaps this is the sound of comfortable middle-class white America attempting to pontificate on the true nature of the class/race divide, but ultimately falling at the last fence. The real subtext of the movie lacks any true conviction. It starts ambiguous, sits on the fence, and then closes back where it started.
If this sounds like a harsh critique of the film, then it couldn't be further from the truth. Despite its questionable gallantry in tackling the issues head on, Crash still stands head and shoulders above virtually anything turned out by Hollywood today. In an age dominated by the market forces of children's size 6 training shoes, how refreshing it is to see a film made for adults and attempting to tackle serious issues. Regardless of its success in addressing a seriously contentious subject, in terms of filmmaking Crash is nothing short of a triumph. As Million Dollar Baby has already proven, Haggis certainly has a way with weaving an engaging story arc, and here is no different. Whatever their motivations, characters are woven with a careful intricacy that ensures that despite their relatively short screen time they stick in the memory. As a first timer behind the motion picture camera, his ability as a director to construct effective standout set-pieces is impressive too, with the road crash Matt Dillon-Thandie Newton scene, and the emotional denouement of the Shaun Toub-Michael Pena storyline being particularly splendid examples of how to create pitch perfect dramatic engagement.
Of course a film like this lives or dies by the quality of its cast, and Crash provides quality here in abundance. Big time players like Cheadle and Dillon produce typically spot on performances full of depth and intensity, but the real delight here is to see how well some of the allegedly less-reputable actors such as Ryan Phillippe and Thandie Newton acquit themselves to the material, turning in superb and believable roles. Even Sandra Bullock makes a fine job of her role, despite being sagged with easily the lamest sub-plot of the film.
Ultimately, now that the Oscar furore and fawning critical appraisals have died down, what remains is an intelligent and thought-provoking film. Flawed: certainly, misguided: possibly, very well made: definitely.
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