Judge Brett Cullum doesn't want you to confuse this overlooked gem from 2004 with David Cronenberg's kinky car-crash sexfest or the Dave Matthews Band album.
Our reviews of Crash: The Complete First Season (published September 15th, 2009), Crash: The Complete First Season (Blu-Ray) (published September 10th, 2009), and Crash: Director's Cut (published April 24th, 2006) are also available.
Graham: It's the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In LA, nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.
Crash (2004) is a tone poem on race relations in Los Angeles. It's a powerful movie that is in turns funny, moving, disturbing, and all too real. The cast is amazing, and the direction assured. If you didn't catch this one in theatres, rent or buy this title as soon as you can. It's a movie that is impossible not to be touched by in some way. Lions Gate provides a solid package for this independently shot feature.
Facts of the Case
Crash takes place over a couple of days in Los Angeles as several characters come in and out of each other's lives quickly and with brutal results. It follows a wide variety of racially and economically diverse characters as they face the realities of living in such a large city, where racial tensions run high. The large, stellar cast includes Sandra Bullock (Speed), Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda), Matt Dillon (Wild Things), Jennifer Esposito (Summer of Sam), Brendan Fraser (The Mummy), Terrence Howard (Hustle and Flow), rapper Ludacris, Thandie Newton (Beloved), Ryan Phillippe (Gosford Park), Larenz Tate (Ray), Tony Danza (Who's the Boss?), Michael Pena (Million Dollar Baby), Daniel Dae Kim (Lost), Shaun Toub (Land of Plenty), Loretta Devine (Woman Thou Art Loosed), William Fichtner (Black Hawk Down), Keith David (Armageddon), and Nona Gaye (The Matrix Reloaded).
Writer Paul Haggis started out on the lighter side of television, writing for shows such as Diff'rent Strokes and The Love Boat. He also created Walker, Texas Ranger and The Facts of Life. But lately Mr. Haggis has cranked out some very moving screenplays, including last year's Best Picture winner Million Dollar Baby. He's a major talent in Hollywood, and Crash is an achievement for him in both writing and directing. The movie's dialogue is fearless, as he weaves in racist remarks in every scene and goes to dark places few films are willing to go to in these politically correct times. It's a breathtaking film supported by a fine cast delivering excellent lines. The racism topic is a "hot button" issue the studios usually stay away from at all costs. Haggis wrote Crash in 2000 with Bobby Harsco, and they had to invest a lot of their own money in the production just to get the project off the ground. Many of the actors involved also invested in the film, and almost all of them took small salaries to accommodate the film's lower budget. It did not have major studio backing until it was shown at a Canadian film festival, where Lions Gate picked up the distribution rights.
The cast is huge, and everyone in it is amazing. It would take a dissertation to praise everyone, but there are quite a few stand-outs. Sandra Bullock paid for her own transportation and housing to do Crash, and I'm mighty glad she did. Her performance in the film is shockingly raw—and after sitting through Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous, I had forgotten what a powerful actress she really is. Don Cheadle helped produce the movie, and he turns in another one of his fine understated-yet-powerful character studies. Terrence Howard is amazingly adroit as an affluent black television director, and Thandie Newton is a revelation as his wife. Matt Dillon and Ryan Phillippe make perfect counterpoints to each other as cops who are struggling with their own inner demons about race. Brendan Fraser is great as the District Attorney, who pays a lot of lip service to race but has his own issues. And then there's Michael Pena, who is stunning as a Mexican locksmith with an adorable daughter who is scared of guns. He turns in a powerful performance that I couldn't shake after watching the film.
The production was shot over thirty-five days in Los Angeles, even though financial backers begged Haggis to use an alternate city to make the film cheaper. Thankfully, he refused to go to Toronto or Prague. Crash is a story that could not take place anywhere else, and the "City of Angels" locales are recognizable. The geographical locale becomes crucial to the flavor and realism of the picture. It's as much a character as any of the cast. Crash is a day in the life of California's largest city, where all races merge on uneasy terms in a thriving metropolis. The only surrealistic aspect of the movie is the snow which falls in the climax, since LA has not seen snow since 1989. [Ed. Note: The last true snowstorm in Los Angeles—meaning visible accumulation, not just a flake or two—was in 1932.] But much like the rain of frogs in Magnolia, it's an impossible symbol of both cleansing and the hope that miracles can and do happen.
Lions Gate provides a solid package for the film. The anamorphic widescreen is solid and beautifully rendered. There is a layer of grain throughout the film which originates from both cost-cutting techniques in filming and artistic choice. The surround mix is healthy, and the score soars appropriately at key dramatic moments. The movie looks and sounds gorgeous thanks to some committed DVD authoring. There are some pretty significant extras as well. Front and center is a lively, upbeat commentary track with director Paul Haggis, co-writer/producer Bobby Harsco, and producer/actor Don Cheadle. They reveal a lot about the film, and even point out some gaffes and fun trivia bits about the film's shooting locations. Also included is a rather standard "Behind the Scenes" featurette with just enough substance from the talking head interviews to lift it above and beyond what we normally find in these segments. A DVD introduction from the director is the only superfluous addition, which adds little to the film. For fans of the soundtrack, there is a music video featuring Kansacali's song "If I…"
The Rebuttal Witnesses
About the only troublesome thing I can see about the film is that it's rough and sometimes hard to watch. The language is frank, and the racial incidents are thoroughly disturbing. I squirmed a little in several scenes, but that was the film's intent. Still, Crash isn't the kind of film you will want to rent to cheer yourself up after a long, hard day. It's never preachy, but it takes racism seriously, and examines it without flinching. There are many scenes that should offend you, but that doesn't make them any easier to watch.
The DVD for Crash is being released in separate widescreen and fullscreen editions. Cropping this film will be criminal, since the cinematography is breathtaking. Los Angeles is probably one of the most photogenic cities in the world, and each frame is filled with important visual metaphors that reinforce the film's themes. I can't imagine why anyone would want to see it chopped up and narrowed down. Check the box carefully when you rent or buy the film, because the pan-and-scan version will be lackluster compared to the widescreen treatment.
Crash is one of the best films from 2004, but it got very little attention from most critics and audiences. It's a movie with a lot to say about the way we live now. Quite often we feel like we live in an enlightened age where we should stop being so sensitive to each other's words and perhaps give up being so politically correct. The truth is we still have a long way to go. Racism runs rampant in America, it's just a lot less formal now. Crash will challenge you. It'll make you laugh, cry, and think a lot about how you react to others. What a shame that it took five years to get made.
Crash is free to go. It's a powerful film about race relations in Los Angeles with a knockout cast of A-list actors. Well-directed, well-photographed, and brave, it is what makes film important. It says something, and that's so rare these days. Ironic that a man who brought so much money to studios over the years would have to place his own money on the line to get it made. Crash is a labor of love, and it's passionate filmmaking at its best.
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Scales of Justice
• Featurette: Behind the Scenes
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