Saturday, August 13, 2005

Review - Crash

“I am angry all the time and I don’t know why”. This is the statement Sandra Bullock comes out with halfway through Crash, and she could be speaking on behalf of every character in the movie. Everyone in this film is angry, frustrated and unhappy. Oh, and racist too. Crash opens and closes with a car crash (hence the title) and during the intervening two hours every character - Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Arab - will reveal the bigotry they manage to keep under wraps most of the time.
Set over the course of a day in Los Angeles, Crash is an ensemble drama following a dozen or so characters who cross paths (often in ludicrously contrived fashion). Matt Dillon is a bigoted cop who pulls over a black couple and molests the woman (Thandie Newton), much to the horror of his partner (Ryan Phillippe) and her husband (Terrence Howard). District Attorney Brendan Fraser and his wife Sandra Bullock are car-jacked at gunpoint by two black youths (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Larenz Tate) and she starts to have suspicions about any minority, including kind-hearted locksmith Daniel (Michael Pena). Don Cheadle is a local cop who finds himself being used as a political pawn. These characters repeatedly ‘crash’ into each other throughout the film, resulting in scene after scene of anger, hatred and prejudice.

Paul Haggis, a successful TV writer for many years, is best known for his Oscar-nominated screenplay for Million Dollar Baby, and Crash marks his first attempt at directing a feature. His film is ambitious in scope, tackles an important theme and features a starry cast, many of whom deliver their finest work in years. Unfortunately, Haggis is guilty of taking a preachy, heavy-handed approach which makes Crash feel like less than the sum of its parts. Given the nature of the film’s structure, Crash inevitably draws comparisons to the work of PT Anderson and Robert Altman, but the comparisons do Haggis’ film no favours. Anderson brought an epic grandeur and operatic sweep to Magnolia which helped make the often incredible coincidences and contrivances more palatable to the viewer, something Crash’s more realistic approach doesn’t manage, and while Altman filled his films with numerous themes and ideas, Crash has one thing and one thing only on its mind - racism.

The opening car crash sets the scene with Jennifer Esposito asking the Chinese driver in the other car if she couldn’t see over the steering wheel or see her ‘blake lights’ properly. The next scene features a Persian man being called Osama by the owner of a gun shop and told to “plan the Jihad on your own time”. It seems every person in this vision of LA resorts to racial stereotyping when pushed to the edge and Haggis just keeps it coming. In the opening half hour every scene seems to end with some kind of racist insult being hurled and it all becomes a bit wearying before too long. It doesn’t take long for the minor shock value of such robust racial language to dissipate and after that you have to ask Haggis “what else have you got?”.

The answer, depressingly, is not much. Haggis hammers home the same point with every scene, an approach which simply dilutes the power of the issue. He’s careful to paint every character in a shade of grey, with each of them shown making racist remarks as well as being on the end of prejudice themselves. Haggis is lucky that his well-chosen cast give such committed performances as they manage to raise his material a notch or two. Matt Dillon gives his best performance for a long time and shares two electric encounters with Thandie Newton, Sandra Bullock plays against type effectively, and Michael Pena is a soulful presence as the closest thing to a truly good character in the film.

Haggis struggles in the second half to ensure that all the disparate characters interact in some way, resulting in some ridiculous coincidences and plot developments which will strain audiences’ credibility to breaking point. Two of the film‘s ‘big’ moments - one involving an overturned car and one with a gun being fired - are handled in overblown fashion by Haggis, with syrupy music and slow-motion laying it on far too heavily. Finally, despite the writer/director’s intent to provide a gritty, edgy portrait of racism in contemporary USA, he goes soft at the end, and the film climaxes to the sound of many “I love you’s” and plenty of hugging.

Crash is undoubtedly very watchable, mainly thanks to the first-rate cast, but it never fully engages the viewer’s emotions and is nowhere near as brave or important as Haggis clearly thinks it is. Haggis loses the fight by trying much too hard, which is hugely disappointing as he can stage an effective scene when he takes his foot off the race pedal a little. The most compelling sequences in Crash are the ones that have the least to do with colour, a scene between a father and daughter or a mother and son, and show glimpses of what the film could have been, but such delicate moments tend to be swiftly lost under the juggernaut of Haggis’ overriding theme. With its broad strokes and ridiculous plotting Crash would probably work best if you don’t take it too seriously but - there’s the rub - Crash simply demands to be taken seriously. It likes to think of itself as being some sort of great statement on the issue of racism but, while it tries to say everything about race, it ends up saying nothing new.