In an episode of Comedy Central’s now-canceled Upright Citizens Brigade, a video store employee is harassed by a lunatic customer who claims that he spoke the “titular line” in numerous Hollywood blockbusters (e.g. “Boy, I’m just so tired of all these star wars”). The skit, in deliriously bizarre fashion, encapsulates the distracting pointlessness of having characters speak a film’s title in dialogue, and unfortunately, Paul Haggis’s Crash starts right off committing this cinematic peccadillo. After a beautiful credit sequence in which disembodied headlights float through the dark night, Don Cheadle’s detective Graham begins Haggis’s ensemble piece by musing, “In L.A., nobody touches you…I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something.” Bereft of both subtlety and necessity, this introductory explanation of the film’s moniker and central theme is a deliberate and grating attempt to hold the audience’s hands through exposition. And what makes the initial scene all the more frustrating is that Haggis’s directorial debut is an otherwise blistering and incisive portrait of urban alienation and intolerance that’s largely unsullied by such painful didacticism.
Clearly modeled after Short Cuts and Magnolia—the latter of which is nakedly aped during a third-act montage of sad characters set to a mournful ballad by Aimee Man-style singer-songwriter Bird York—Crash explores, via interlocking stories, the cultural, racial, and spiritual isolation of Los Angelinos. Due to the sprawling city’s decentralized, car-reliant layout, Haggis’s characters have become sheltered from those not in their own socio-economic sphere, and this seclusion has led to virulent narrow-mindedness. From the race-exploiting Los Angeles district attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his bitchy wife (Sandra Bullock)—who are carjacked by two black men (Larenz Tate and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges)—to a racist cop (Matt Dillon) who sexually harasses the tipsy wife (Thandie Newton) of a well-off television director (Terrence Howard), to a Persian small business owner (Shaun Toub) who seeks violent vengeance against the Hispanic locksmith (Michael Peña) he believes has trashed his store, Haggis lays bare a metropolitan web of corrosive, divisive hatred and self-loathing.
Co-written by Bobby Moresco, the script confronts prejudice with unvarnished nastiness, its characters shamelessly uttering venomous slurs as if they were acceptable means of everyday communication. The director means to shock us, and though at times his characters seem unrealistically unguarded about their discriminatory opinions, Crash’s head-on depiction of people’s mistrust and disgust for those not like themselves is uncompromising. This confrontational bluntness is complemented by both a refusal to paint its often-despicable characters in broad strokes (recognizing that repugnant bigotry doesn’t automatically preclude kindness toward family, friends, and strangers) and a fearless desire to present stereotypes as not only dangerous and destructive, but also as frequently rooted in truth. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a revealing scene in which Bridges’s Anthony—a gregarious hypocrite compelled to action by misguided righteousness—rants about white people’s unfair assumption that all young African-American males are criminals, only to turn around and immediately hijack Fraser and Bullock’s SUV at gunpoint.
Haggis’s film eventually goes a bit overboard with such irony, but his point about the complexities (and contradictions) of racist generalizations remains bracing. Furthermore, though his melodramatic narrative threads are woven together with an abundance of unbelievably convenient coincidences, the writer-director’s caustic prose has a hard-nosed, sometimes unpleasant realism that, thanks to a superb cast led by Cheadle, Howard, and the phenomenal Bridges, firmly grounds its tumultuous situations in believable emotional terrain. One wishes J. Michael Muro’s handsome cinematography didn’t so regularly resort to pretentious, emotion-underlining slow motion, and the clunky procession of conclusions results in too many instances of tidy catharsis. Yet if the multiple finales aren’t handled with flawless grace, the filmmaker’s directorial instincts—especially during a police standoff situated, fittingly, on a dead end street—are quite sharp. And in a climactic act of murderous rage seemingly staved off by the hand of God, Haggis finds a moment of transcendent grace that captures the all-too-rare miracle of compassionate, selfless sacrifice.