1½ stars (out of 4)
Crash (2004*): Dir. Paul Haggis. Written by: Haggis and Bobby Moresco, from a story by Haggis. Starring: Don Cheadle, Terrence Howard, Thandie Newton, Sandra Bullock, and Matt Dillon. Rated R for language, sexual content, and some violence. Running time: 112 minutes.
Many critics were as dismayed as Best Picture presenter Jack Nicholson when Crash beat out the favorite, Brokeback Mountain. An ensemble drama set in Los Angeles, Haggis’s film seemingly won over its audience with its social consciousness–but it hasn’t exactly stayed in anyone’s mind for good reason.
The film spans several perspectives in the L.A. area, with a host of characters from various backgrounds interacting (and often clashing) with each other. A seemingly disparate set of events occur: a police detective happens upon a dead body, two carjackers steal an affluent couple’s SUV, and a shop-owner purchases a firearm to protect his business, among others. Each action has farther-reaching consequences than any character can anticipate.
Crash‘s major fault perhaps lies in its desire to be “about something.” That sounds noble in theory, but the screenplay tries to shove every conceivable reference to discrimination into its dialogue, no matter how forced. To the film’s credit, it tries to show us that racism doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but it contrives extraordinary circumstances in order to create conflict. Not to mention its groan-worthy (even blood-boiling) coincidences.
The actors aren’t helped much by the material, which requires most of them to play stereotypes (the jilted wife, the brooding detective, etc.). Despite all odds, we do have standout performances from Matt Dillon as a corrupt cop and Terrence Howard as a usually poised television director who snaps. These two actors sell some unbelievable moments through sheer force of will. Yet even when it appears Haggis has succeeded in provoking an issue, he throws in a crowd-pleasing finale, only perpetuating his own delusions.
It’s not all bad, but when it’s bad, it’s downright reprehensible. Unlike Crash, successful movies about racism (like last year’s Fruitvale Station) succeed because they give us full-bodied characters whose lives are not dictated or dominated by the mention of racism at every point in their lives. They’re allowed to be people—what a concept!
Next film: The Departed, 2006
*Note: While Crash first opened in theaters in 2004, it was only released wide in 2005, and was thus eligible for Oscar consideration.