Sparks start flying early on in Crash, Paul Haggis' remarkable second feature, as we hear one of its most enigmatic characters muse, "We're always behind this metal and glass," and he continues while staring at the alternating lights at a scene of a crime, "It's the sense of touch... I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something." It may sound ostentatious, but it doesn't take long for one to realize that he ain't kiddin'! Canadian Born Haggis is a veteran of television shows like L.A. Law, EZ Streets , and thirtysomething; programs known for their running commentary on issues such as race relations and social injustice. 2004 was certainly his breakthrough year as he also wrote the Oscar nominated screenplay for Million Dollar Baby. While race and class structures certainly played in a part in Eastwood's film, here they're heightened to a point of absurdity, yet its astonishing how intelligently the material is handled.
Following the groundwork laid out by films like Short Cuts (1993), Magnolia (1999), and the lesser-known Grand Canyon (1991) (all set in L.A.), Crash follows several different characters as they go about their lives in about a 36-hour period. After detailing the initial crime scene where we met a righteous police detective (Don Cheadle) and his partner/girlfriend (Jennifer Esposito), the film loops back in time to show how it all transpired. The introductory sequences are important for more than one reason. They vividly expose the anger bubbling underneath the surface, which eventually pours over: from an Asian woman berating Esposito's character because her vehicle is in front, and since she's brown-skinned, she must be a Mexican who doesnt know how to drive (a similar comment by Cheadle makes her bark back that her mother is Puerto Rican and her father is El Salvadorian) to a perennially bitchy Brentwood housewife (Sandra Bullock) of a DA (Brendan Fraser) who gets paranoid about anyone who isn't white (including her longtime maid and a Hispanic locksmith simply doing their jobs) after their SUV was stolen at gunpoint by two young black men (Larenz Tate and rap artist Chris "Ludacris" Bridges). Almost everyone is angry and Crash slowly establishes the reasons why.
These tension filled vignettes come fast and fluid and the characters in them are mostly judged by their most obvious feature: the color of their skin. The locksmith (Michael Peña) also gets involved with an Iranian store owner (Shaun Toub) who, by his post-9/11 ideology, thinks that everyone is out to get him (and goes out to shop for bullets with his daughter). And in arguably the most crucial of all, a cop who knows that he's racist (Matt Dillon) stops an SUV (knowing full well that it isn't the stolen one). While his young partner (Ryan Phillippe) looks on in disgust, he humiliates a black television director (Terrence Howard) and his wife (Thandie Newton) who in return is enraged by the fact that her husband didn't speak out against the cop. (We later see Dillon's character with his father who's in pain due to his mistreated prostate, but the helpless Dillon can't get a straight answer from a black supervisor at their HMO because he insulted her earlier.) Many of the aforementioned situations involve some sort of an automobile, and it seems like Haggis has used them to validate the point made earlier in the film: the isolation and the sense of touch which is missing. Navigating the vast landscape of Los Angeles, these vehicles become the perfect metaphor for people in Crash, usually going about their own ways but occasionally crashing into each other just to see if they can still feel.
The screenplay written by Haggis (along with Bobby Moresco) is at once both humane and tough as steel. Sam Fuller might've spoken about spraying bullets at his audience to have them feel what real war is like, but in Crash, it's the words that do the trick (there were certainly a few "casualties" early on in a screening I attended last week). Crash doesn't try to be provocative just for the sake of it; like the best films of Larry Clark, it's self-consciously intelligent about the way it goes about its business. I don't recall the last time an American film was so brave and blunt with the words spoken by its characters. Most of those hit the intended target. The aim isn't the main issue with the ones who do not, but it's rather the ambiguity of the objective. Amid this warfare, however, Haggis steps aside to observe a tender moment between Peña and his daughter as she talks about the bullet which went through her window in the old neighborhood. Haggis, who earlier established another father and daughter (the Iranians), comes around to have the daughters become the guardian angels for their fathers and that's just one example of complexity of the screenplay.
Crash marches on, building towards a moment of clarity; it comes about halfway through, and Haggis gives it everything he has as if the whole film rested on it. As Mark Isham's evocative score reaches its crescendo, the downtrodden Newton finds herself stuck underneath her car only to be helped by Dillon's character who assaulted her the night before. Newton fights him off while Dillon tries to calm her down, knowing that he needs her as much as she needs him. It's a moment so breathtakingly vibrant and honest that even the best passages of Magnolia seem less in comparison. After that, there's no doubt regarding where the film wants to go and it's a good place to be.
Don Cheadle, who also serves as a producer, recently stated that Paul Haggis was involved in an accident himself in the early-90s, and that incident became the catalyzing factor for the story. As for any film dealing with serious issues, Haggis had trouble coming up with the money. But the budget of roughly $7 million was eventually raised after a few individuals came on board. And what a cast Haggis has assembled for a film, which regardless of its budget, seems epic in every sense. A solid screenplay can make a lot of actors look good, but in a multi-character study like Crash , where the characters being inhabited for short periods of time are complex human beings, the onus falls on the actors. Sandra Bullock, in about half a dozen scenes, surpasses everything shes ever done in her career; Matt Dillon and Ryan Phillippe have never been better; Thandie Newton, one of my favorite performers, is brilliant once again which begs the question why she isnt employed more often (although one reason is pretty obvious); Cheadle brings a quiet intensity to his performance which is fast becoming his trademark. From Jennifer Esposito to Brendan Fraser, from William Fichtner to "Ludacris", everyone is worthy of praise.
Thematically speaking, Crash may not be covering any new ground, but it comments on an amalgam of issues with force and conviction. It's also a compassionate and deeply-felt meditation on hope and redemption in the face of doubt and despair. Frankly, in societies where there's true dialogue regarding racial politics and all of its manifestations, a film like Crash would be deemed irrelevant, but it shouldn't be a news to anyone that ours isn't one of them. We live in a "melting-pot" where nothing seems to be melting anymore. By trying to be politically correct, we have not only become detached from everything and everyone around us, but most importantly, from ourselves. Crash shows humanity in all of its glory and shame, where one act can break a cycle of anger and hate. In a world where paranoia roams freely, two wrongs certainly don't make a right.