In Crash, the new film by Paul Haggis, the veteran TV writer/director who was nominated for an Academy Award for his Million Dollar Baby screenplay, cars and lives slam into each other, leaving the victims to sort out the mess. Crash seeks to update the “social problem” films of the ’40s and ’50s — movies like Intruder in the Dust and Imitation of Life — by surveying the state of race relations in the violent and contentious urban environment of contemporary Los Angeles. Like those old melodramas, it can be excessively earnest and didactic, and its structure is over-programmed and often predictable. Characters are introduced in scenes in which they appear to be hateful bigots and then are humanized and made empathetic, or, less often, appear at first to be kind and free of prejudice but then go on to act in ways that expose unconscious stereotyping. The ones we expect the least from prove to be capable of kindness and even heroism, while those who seem most decent may give in to rage and violence.
The large cast — which includes such familiar faces as Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser, Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe, Jennifer Esposito, Ludacris, Larenz Tate, and Loretta Devine — is black, white, Latino, Middle Eastern, and Southeast Asian. The characters are cops, criminals, victims, and innocent bystanders, but in Haggis’ world no one is innocent of the sin of intolerance. As in many ensemble films (Short Cuts, Magnolia, Happiness) they often have existing connections that are revealed late in the game, and they divide and recombine in unexpected, often improbable, ways.
The film opens with racial hostility right out in front — Kim Lee (Alexis Rhee) has rear-ended a car carrying Detectives Graham (Cheadle) and Ria (Esposito), and a disagreement over who’s at fault leads to an ugly dispute in which Ria mocks Kim’s accent (“Blakes?!”) and her height and Kim accuses Ria of being an illegal and tells her to go back to Mexico. We then move to a scene in a gun shop, where the middle-aged white owner (Jack McGee) accuses Farhad (Shaun Toub), a Persian convenience-store owner, and his daughter Dorri (Bahar Soomekh) of being terrorists. Two young black men (Ludacris and Tate) have a debate about unfair treatment and stereotyping but then proceed to carjack some rich white folks (Fraser and Bullock) who seem intimidated by them. While any one of these scenes could work fine on its own, the cumulative effect is awfully repetitive, and the implication that everyone in L.A. is virulently and outspokenly racist hurts Haggis’ credibility. Sure, nearly everyone harbors some racial prejudice, but most of us express it a bit more subtly, if at all. Making it so overt so quickly rather than building up to it makes us feel overwhelmed and preached at.
The film progresses through a tight series of such confrontations, many of which may seem familiar — the sheer volume guarantees that anyone who’s ever experienced racism firsthand, from either side or as a bystander, will feel a bit of déjà vu. Though the quick sketching of the characters leaves little room for complexity, it speeds up the process of making us identify and empathize with them, so that when they get in over their heads we feel a sense of involvement. As circumstances push several characters to their breaking points, the film sets up anxious, potentially explosive situations that could go a number of different ways, then makes us squirm while they develop. There’s surprising tension and even moments of real elation. Few situations turn out the way we’re set up to expect — one life is saved due to a character’s bad intentions while another is lost because of good ones — though some “surprise” reversals are telegraphed too far in advance.
While Haggis’ writing lacks subtlety, he’s a great actors’ director. The performances are uniformly excellent, and there are surprises from some of the most familiar cast members. Phillippe, though cast — as usual — as the idealistic male ingénue, delivers an unusually grounded, unmannered performance. At 30 he still looks like a kid, but he’s beginning to develop some gravitas. Bullock, who is so associated with her comedic roles that we may underrate her dramatic skills, has a smart, impassioned monologue that starts with her anger at the men who carjacked her and those around her who’ve let her down but winds up being about her constant, low-simmering rage; it suggests that rather than being the proximate cause of her fury, the black and Latino characters she lashes out at are merely handy targets for her unacknowledged dissatisfaction with her own life. Even better is the scene between a black television director and his wife (Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton) that offers a rare glimpse into the conflicts between and within educated, successful African-Americans. After an unwarranted police stop, she’s enraged about his refusal to intervene when a cop used the pretense of frisking her to feel her up, even stroking her crotch. She rails against what she sees as cowardly Uncle-Tomism while he insists that he acted the only way he could, that when a white man has the power there’s no way to win, so you do what you must to survive.
The film is at its best in moments like these, when Haggis downplays his self-imposed obligation to educate and allows the actors to explore their characters a bit. There’s some great stuff there between all the object lessons; if only there were fewer of those to slog through. Like too many filmmakers taking on a large subject, Haggis seems to feel that he has to address it comprehensively. He explores virtually every imaginable permutation of racism, showing that resentment breeds resentment, that those who feel oppressed by the stereotyping they face don’t hesitate to do the same to others, nor do they necessarily grasp the irony. He posits that institutionalized racism can force a person to turn against others like himself, as when a black police sergeant (Keith David) covers up racial profiling and harassment by a man in his command so as to keep his own record clean. A corrupt system can corrupt those who must work in it, but overreaching ambition, too, has its dangers.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()