Friday, March 11, 2011

2005 - Crash

This week, I managed to squeeze in a couple of preview film screenings. First, The Adjustment Bureau is right up my alley - a mind-bending thriller with dollops of humour. Matt Damon is plenty charming and Emily Blunt is simply captivating. Second, Win Win is an example of another of my favourite genres, the quirky independent feature. The dry script is occasionally simple, but the situational comedy scores. Plus, the cast, led by Paul Giamatti, is spot on. Two worthy pictures on which to spend your money.

Earlier today, I rounded out the 2005 Best Picture nominees with a viewing of...

Paul Haggis
Paul Haggis & Bobby Moresco
Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, William Fichtner, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges, Thandie Newton, Michael Peña, Ryan Phillippe, Larenz Tate, Shaun Toub
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
3 wins, including Best Picture

Things can get rough in Los Angeles over a 24-hour period - violence, crime, racism. The D.A. (Fraser) and his racist wife (Bullock) are carjacked by two black youths (Bridges & Tate). A young LAPD cop (Phillippe) watches on as his racist partner (Dillon) unnecessarily humiliates a film director (Howard) and his wife (Newton). A Hispanic locksmith (Peña) has trouble communicating with a distrusting Persian shop owner (Toub). Two detectives (Cheadle & Esposito), who are involved in a sexual relationship when off-duty, investigate the seemingly racially motivated killings of an undercover cop. Over the course of the next day, all these characters lives intertwine as they find themselves forced to deal with their own prejudices.

Crash's victory at the 2005 Academy Awards became the subject of some hyped controversy, but I'll save that discussion for the verdict post. For now, I'll try to communicate my odd experience in watching this film. It's true that Crash is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of flick, but my assessment seems to fall into a third category - love it and hate it.

Right off the bat, Crash attempts to be provocative. We witness several incidents charged with flippant racism, mostly involving the most clichéd of racist stereotypes. The characters at first seem one-dimensional, lacking subtlety or shades of grey. In fact, the abundance of totally irrational behaviour left me feeling tense and angry - which may be less indicative of the script's foibles than of my instinctive reaction to unreasonable bigots. In any case, a somewhat indistinct lack of realism permeates the first half of the picture.

But slowly, as the interwoven stories progress, the shades of grey begin to reveal themselves. Suddenly, we see a different side to each of the characters. The more conspicuously racist folks discover their compassionate side. Those who appeared righteous allow their prejudicial fears to surface. Each behaves in a way that is at odds with our initial assessment of them. For some, it takes longer than others, but in the end, almost every character is affected ... The whole thing is still contrived and unrealistic, but, hey, it's very effective.

Many intensely emotional scenes follow. (If you hate spoilers, skip this paragraph.) An unashamedly racist cop heroically pulls a black woman out of a car wreck - the same woman he had earlier molested during a pat-down. An angry shop-owner waves a vengeful gun in the face of a locksmith, pulling the trigger just as the locksmith's young daughter runs into his arms. Miraculously, she is unscathed. This latter scene in particular is incredibly powerful, despite its contrivances - I mean, the girl jumps at the exact second that the gun is fired? Even my vivid memory of this scene from my first viewing of Crash five years ago - and therefore knowing exactly what was about to happen - didn't prevent my eyes from welling up. However, while the emotional part of my brain gazed in awe, the logical part began to question the scene's conclusion. A man just fired a gun at your family and you just take your daughter inside and leave the crazy moron on the street?

This lack of realism is not aided by occasional bouts of melodramatic film-making. The close-up of Sandra Bullock's foot as she slips down the stairs may have been acceptable, but to follow it with a close-up of the phone hitting the floor - in slow motion, no less - is perhaps pushing it. Plus, there are simply too many coincidences. It's understandable considering the Altman-esque interweaving of several characters' stories, but without Altman's light-hearted touch, most of the links between characters seem contrived.

Being an ensemble movie, a great cast is imperative, and in that regard, the film succeeds. In fact, the subtlety of the performances lessens some of the film's superficiality. Don Cheadle, Terrence Howard and Michael Peña are particularly engaging stand-outs. Fans of Star Trek will be pleased to see Marina Sirtis in a small role. Likewise, fans of Lost should keep their eyes peeled for Daniel Dae Kim, who appears very briefly. And if there are still any fans of Who's The Boss?, they will appreciate the cameo by Tony Danza.

When all is said and done, I remain conflicted. Despite the layer of artifice that sits atop Crash, its emotionally manipulative impact is undeniable. Perhaps it is an example of the immense power that high stakes can give a story. With such serious life-and-death situations, a poor script can still be utterly compelling. Craving subtle and clever writing, the scribe in me wants to dismiss this movie ... but I simply can't.


  1. i'm glad you don't hate it! I myself love this movie, but I might need to give it another try.

  2. Crash was my choice for Best Picture of 2005, among some very strong candidates. Watching it again last night does not change my opinion, which I guess tips off how I will vote.

    Crash is the story of anger, attitudes and behavior with racism as the catalyst. Attitudes determine behavior and attitudes are very hard and slow to modify or change. Paul Haggis cuts to the chase and I think remarkably shows us how it can happen in about two hours. I agree with you Matt that the first hour is not a very easy watch, but even here there are quick scenes that give us glimpses into the motivation for the often despicable behaviour that we witness. Some of the writing is heavy handed at the outset, but serves its purpose.

    As far as the interconnections, I'll agree it is a form of manipulation, but I accepted it and the coincidences as part of the storytelling. I seem to have a affinity for well written interconnecting story-lines - Short Cuts, Magnolia, Lantana, Mind the Gap. I think Crash is one of the best of these types of films. It grabbed my attention from the get go, and kept it throughout.

  3. I agree: "its emotionally manipulative impact is undeniable. " Nonetheless, the film does impact our emotions.

    I wrote a short essay on Crash called "The Root Cause of Racial Prejudice." If you would like to read it, I am open to any feedback: