Crash (2005)

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.

13 Comments »

  1. laura Said,

    May 8, 2005 @ 9:31 am

    Good review Chuck. You’re more patient with it than I was. Have you seen Los Angeles Plays Itself?

  2. Chuck Said,

    May 8, 2005 @ 12:16 pm

    Thanks, Laura. I haven’t seen Los Angeles Plays Itself but have been hearing good buzz about it for several months now.

    I’ve actually been rethinking my review of Crash, in part because of David Shumway’s essay, “Cultural Studies and Questions of Pleasure and Value” (anthologized in Berube’s The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies), in which Shumway asks whether cultural studies should “champion works that openly express its democratic values.” Shumway uses the examples of John Sayles’ films such as Lone Star that in some sense “perform” cultural studies work.

    I’m not sure that Crash does this wok as effectively as Lone Star, which I regard as one of the best, most underrated films of the 1990s, but I’m rethinking some of my initial distaste for it. Still, I think the film had some real problems, particularly in its realization of female characters. What caused you to be so impatient with the film?

  3. laura Said,

    May 8, 2005 @ 9:10 pm

    That’s a potentially dangerous question Chuck.

    It boils down to two things: the film’s relation to Magnolia, and the simplemindedness of its politics. Crash extrapolates a narrative template (a set of moves) from Magnolia and applies them, unimaginatively, in a way that suggests the audience is expected to process them as divine and redemptive; but Magnolia invents forms to follow functions specific to the emotional cadences of its material. I’m thinking in particular of Magnolia‘s song sequence, and the rain of frogs – Crash lamely imitates both, though the actors don’t actually sing along in the relevant passage, and snow is substituted for frogs. Without romanticising the earlier film I do think those flourishes earned their keep in it, but Crash struck me as freeloading.

    As you said, the characters in Crash are blatant stereotypes, and on top of that each one’s narrative trajectory is literally stereotyped – as if drawn on a spirograph toy which traces the same (simple and obvious) shape every time. This made the movie annoyingly and increasingly predictable, and for me it also undercut the film’s mildy good intentions re: putting race relations on the table for open discussion. There was no real sense of disequilibrium or power imbalance, everything cancelled out everything else. The people at the very bottom of the ladder, the Cambodians in the van, were fairytale waifs with no weight in the movie’s identity schema (which values star power above everything other consideration.)

    Stereotyping would be a fairly large hazard in writing a movie of this sort, I imagine, and I really didn’t get much sense that anyone had tried to avoid tangling with it.

  4. Chuck Said,

    May 8, 2005 @ 11:13 pm

    Thanks for the additional comments, Laura. In comparing the film to Magnolia, I was struck by PT Anderson’s self-awareness, his recognition that the connections were abitrary and the unifying climax (the frogs) was clearly aware of its artificiality (hence the title, “It really happened”). So, I think you’re right about the film’s formal problems.

    And, yes, I think you’re right about the power imbalances ultimately being cancelled out. The Latino locksmith verged on simple stereotype, too. In a sense, I was just trying to rethink my initial assumptions about the film, but that first impression now seems right to me, especially after your additional comments.

    There is a weird autobiographical subtext to the film (I’ll try to find the link later), in that the director-screenwriter was apparently hijacked a few years ago while walking out of a Blockbuster Video, and apparently the screenplay *was* his attempt to work through the idea that race and class relations are not simple, but I don’t think the film conveys that as effectively as it should have.

  5. Diana Said,

    May 16, 2005 @ 2:42 pm

    You’re right that there were no everyday scenes. Everything whipsawed between the treacly and the violent. The film seemed to be in love with its script, with no idea how to express things visually except through bombast: every dramatic moment (gunshots, crashes, embraces, fireballs) bloatedly expanded with slo-mo and music.

    At first I thought, ok, a film in which everybody simply IS their race and nothing else, fine. Maybe that’s a good idea; it’s an idea, anyway. But it had all the shortcomings you and your commenter have said, and more.

    Also, Haggis’ script for Million Dollar Baby uses exactly the same type of characterization: wise old black man, sleazy Jewish promoter, plucky Irish gal, white-trash Ozark family, and scary-mean black athletes. –That last is maybe not a sterotype as such, in the world, it’s just that plucky, sweet, slightly reedy Hilary Swank always came up against black fighters, who glowered and menaced, at least until she knocked them flat in the first 20 seconds. I bet that’s the script where Haggis worked out his feelings about the Blockbuster incident.

  6. Chuck Said,

    May 17, 2005 @ 11:49 am

    Diana, I found myself thinking about Million Dollar Baby, too, with all of the stereotypes you mentioned.

    And I think you’re right about the film’s visuals. When I saw the trailers I immediately thought about Crash, but Mann’s image of urban alienation seems far more subtle to me even if his meditations on masculinity are fairly trite.

  7. Chuck Said,

    May 17, 2005 @ 11:52 am

    Oops, I meant Mann’s Collateral, not Crash.

  8. dvd Said,

    May 18, 2005 @ 3:18 am

    After all the critics loving this film so much, and then all my friends liking it, I’m really glad I stumbled upon your review, Chuck, and the brief discussion above. It perfectly encapsulates my own distaste for the film. White man’s piety, is what it struck me as.

  9. Chuck Said,

    May 18, 2005 @ 9:31 am

    I’ve been confused by the critical acclaim, too. David Denby called it “the best American film since Mystic River.” I’ve spent several days now trying to figure out how many things are wrong with that sentence.

  10. Something Requisitely Witty and Urbane Said,

    March 7, 2006 @ 1:31 am

    Crashing the Party

    For whatever reason, in my real life, people come to me when they want to know about the current state of movies. Though I’ve been woefully unqualified for this duty in the past year or so, today’s conversations questions were

  11. Ibliss Said,

    July 20, 2006 @ 8:41 pm

    Critics…!
    Blah! Blah! Blah! Always chopping and cutting.
    Does a critic make a movie? NO.
    Does a critic act in a movie? NO.
    Does a critic have a talent? Helllllll NOOOO!!!!
    They just knownames of many movies, many actors, many plays and ping pong with the names adding a chip here and chop there.
    Who has the monopoly on VALUE can cast stones.
    Honest people? We just go watch a movie and let our feeling speak out a like or dislike PERIOD!

  12. MS Said,

    October 9, 2007 @ 2:24 pm

    Taking everything into account, as a Media Studies teacher I enjoyed the film as have many of my students. This film has pace and intensity that everyday scenes would have detracted from and Haggis wasn’t afraid to present stereotypes, an enjoyable text.

  13. Chuck Said,

    October 9, 2007 @ 2:51 pm

    But I think that’s precisely the problem. When we see people as stereotypes, it reduces our ability to see them as fully human. I don’t think that Haggis fully resolves that issue. I also wonder how much the film “naturalizes” these stereotypes precisely through such techniques as pacing and intensity that make it harder to question Haggis’s representations. That being said, I think it’s an eminently teachable film because it will provoke precisely these kinds of debates.

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