In his review of Paul Haggis’s directorial debut, Crash (IMDB), A.O. Scott compares the film to other films where “Americans from radically different backgrounds are brought together by a grim serendipity that forces them, or at least the audience, to acknowledge their essential connectedness,” mentioning examples such as 21 Grams and Monster’s Ball. I saw the film as another in a series of Los Angeles films, such as Short Cuts and Magnolia, but Scott’s point is essentially right. And while Crash has been touted by many critics as a sharp commentary on race relations, I’d have to agree with Scott that Crash is often overwrought, and because it proceeds through character types (the racist LAPD officer, the isolated suburban housewife, among others), the film only reinforces what it is trying to challenge.
As if the title weren’t clear enough, the opening scene features a minor fender bender next to a crime scene. As they prepare to deal with the investigation, Graham (Don Cheadle), a detective, comments to his partner and lover, Ria (Jennifer Esposito), that he thinks people in LA crash into each other because they are so isolated, “It’s the sense of touch. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something.” Ria dismisses Graham’s comments–accidents happen–but Graham’s remarks serve as a metaphor that’s supposed to guide our experience of the rest of the film. Characters from different race and class backgrounds keep crashing into each other (get it?) and are forced to confront (or not) the humanity of the people they encounter.
I think that what I found most frustrating about this film was the “shallowness” of its characters. By that, I mean that virtually every character seems to have two sides, one side heroic and tolerant and the other side fearful and, quite often, racist. Matt Dillon’s LAPD officer pulls over a wealthy, educated black couple for “driving while black,” sexually assaulting the wife (Thandie Newton) in a mock search for weapons. Later, he heroically rescues the same woman from a car accident. The wife of a white district attorney (Sandra Bullock) goes from liberal-minded to racist the minute her SUV is carjacked by a couple of black teenagers. She later proclaims that a Latino locksmith is going to pass along the new locks to their house to his gangbanger friends well within earshot of the locksmith who quietly goes about his job. By the end of the film she takes another chracater turn that felt equally implausible. Characters would leap from cardboard villains spouting racist epithets (or worse) to gentle souls at a single cut, something that seemed even more explicit with the female characters played by Bullock, Newton, and Jennifer Esposito. I don’t want to make any larger claims about the screenplay, but I did find the female characters far less developed than their male counterparts.
The film also used an endangered child subplot in a manipulative, transparent way. In one early scene, the locksmith finds his daughter hiding under her bed, deeply afraid that she’ll get hit by a stray bullet. Her father offers her an “invisible cloak” that will protect her from any violence. It’s not hard to guess that the scene serves as foreshadowing for a potentially violent scene later in the film. At any rate, throughout the film, I found myself frustrated by the magnitude of the interactions. There were no “everyday” scenes, and all interactions seemed far too charged for the film to seem completely plausible. For this reason, P.T. Anderson’s self-awareness in Magnolia, his acknowledgement of the implausibility of certain interactions, seemed far more convincing to me.
I don’t want to seem entirely dismissive of the film. The performances were generally quite solid (especially Don Cheadle, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, and Matt Dillon), and I liked the gritty cinematography (taken from the Michael Mann school of filming L.A.). And critics I like, such as the New Yorker’s David Denby really admired the film. In fact, Denby comments that “it’s easily the strongest American film since Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River.” On a formal level, Denby may be right. Haggis’s film is “intricately worked,” with plot elements and characters tightly woven, often to productive effect. As Denby notes, in Haggis’s Los Angeles, “no one is entirely innocent or entirely guilty.” That’s probably fair to say, but I don’t think this observation is quite enough to sustain such an ambitious film.