Judge Jennifer Malkowski thinks some of the serious scenarios of racism and sexual violation in this film would have been much better realized through the magic of interpretive dance...
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 (2004) (published August 29th, 2005) are also available.
"In L.A., 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."
You know those subtle movies that get better each time you watch them, and every time you notice something great that you never saw there before? Crash is not one of them. With its flashy, seems-complicated-but-isn't story, and raw, racial bite, the initial emotional impact of a first viewing gets diluted the second or third time around and the film tends to just feel more and more (over)constructed.
Facts of the Case
Oh, how many facts there are. A diverse handful of L.A. citizens find their lives over two days in December intertwining and crashing together, propelled by the racial tensions that L.A. is famous for.
Graham (Don Cheadle) is a detective stretched thin between fighting with his partner and girlfriend, Ria (Jennifer Esposito), carrying for his drug-addicted mother, worrying over his missing brother, and investigating a shooting between cops that may be racially motivated. Jean (Sandra Bullock) is a rich white woman who is carjacked by two young black men. While she copes with her anger and prejudice, her district attorney husband, Rick (Brendan Fraser), is trying to spin the story in such a way that he won't lose either "the black vote or the law and order vote." Anthony (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) and Peter (Larenz Tate), the carjackers who are constantly debating race politics, accidentally run over a "Chinaman" (actually a Korean man) on their way to sell the merchandise and are later shocked to find themselves confronted by an unexpected ethical dilemma. Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon) is a racist cop with a sick father and a lot of rationalizations for his prejudice. When he pulls over an upper-class black couple, Cameron (Terrence Howard) and Christine (Thandie Newton) with his partner Officer Hanson (Ryan Phillipe), he crosses a line and intentionally humiliates them both. After this traumatic experience, Cameron gets a new perspective on his status at work as a television director and Officer Hanson commits himself to "doing the right thing" and reporting his partner, not realizing where that path will take him. Dorri (Bahar Soomekh) is a young Persian woman trying to convince her shopkeeper father (Shaun Taub) not to buy a gun for his store. He does anyway and careens toward tragedy when he sets out to take revenge on a locksmith, Daniel (Michael Peña), trying to keep his young daughter safe.
To start with, it should be noted that this director's cut admittedly does not cut much material back into the film (for Judge Brett Cullum's DVD Verdict review of the original release, follow the link on the right in "Accomplices"). In a written note on the insert card, Haggis explains that, "what you will see here are more 'moments' than scenes; chunks of dialogue here and there…And I let the movie 'breathe' in some spots—well, a little." It felt like basically the same film that I saw in theaters last summer.
As an entry into the recently popular new genre of many-separate-stories-serendipitously-connecting movies, Crash is great. While falling short of the standard set by Magnolia, it still features a lot of different stories that are each carefully written, wonderfully acted (the cast is great, without exception), and nicely connected. What I respect most about the film is Haggis's restraint in terms of running time and the number of connections made. At 115 minutes, it's pretty modest for a story with this many threads and characters, and he doesn't give in to the instinct to make as many connections as possible. In the deleted scenes, we learn that Jean's housekeeper is Ria's mother and we see Anthony drive by Officer Hanson in a significant moment of his story. The reason these scenes were cut, Haggis explains, is that it "just seemed like coincidence[s] we didn't need." Agreed.
Another thing Crash does well is examine truly disturbing, squirm-inducing instances of prejudice, hatred, and cruelty unflinchingly. From Officer Ryan frisking Christine to Officer Hanson getting slammed over and over again while trying to do the right thing to Cameron being forced to make humiliating choices on the set of his television show, Haggis gives us plenty of deeply uncomfortable, upsetting moments. The exchange between Graham and Ria after an aborted sex scene during which he calls her Mexican is indicative of the make-you-laugh, make-you-think unsettling humor of the film:
Ria: "My father's from Puerto Rico, my mother's from El Salvador, and
neither one of those is Mexico."
As a white viewer, I have to say that the moment that I connected with and was disturbed by most was Sandra Bullock's character's speech after being carjacked: "I just had a gun pointed in my face and it was my fault because I knew it was gonna happen. But if a white person sees two black men walking towards her and she turns and walks in the other direction, she's a racist, right? Well I got scared and I didn't say anything and ten seconds later I had a gun in my face." Wherever it comes from in our upbringing or our culture, I think most white people have instincts like this. The only real difference is how we feel about them inside and how we act on them externally. Whenever I myself experience that kind of instinctual, uncontrolled prejudice, I feel incredibly disgusted with myself and guilty and sad. The problem is, that most of the time internalized racism does not play out the way it does in this film. Every black man I've ever has that upsetting instinct about has passed me on the street without incident, which I'm sure is true in 99.9 percent of cases of that kind of internal racism. So it is entertaining, but also kind of unfortunate, that the one instance of that feeling in the film results in a carjacking. Similarly, Officer Ryan makes a comment to Officer Hanson midway through the film: "Wait till you've been [a cop for] a little longer. You think you know who you are. You have no idea." Initially haunting, this prophetic advice is played out in the least subtle way possible later that day. Usually, people's attitudes about race do not play out in the extreme, external ways which may play better on film, but do not stick with an audience the same way subtler, open-ended conclusions may have.
Crash is a moving film about racism written by two white men who are obviously trying hard to think through the issues and say something real. For what it is, it succeeds, but some part of me finds the premise a bit suspect. If I were a white person looking to write a screenplay about how racism is everywhere, I would probably choose a person of color as a writing partner to get another perspective to really legitimate and balance the screenplay. Instead, Paul Haggis chose Bobby Moresco, another white man who can only possibly add another white man's perspective. No matter how earnestly and openly they approach the screenplay, it still reads as a movie that wants to spread the hate as evenly as possible. After all, who would be most invested in a film about how universal racism is? The people most historically (and, arguably, currently) accountable for racism in America: white people. Even if it is not conscious or malicious, that message is in some way comforting to white viewers.
Additionally, Crash has some definite problems with tone. The overwrought, operatic vocals frequently mar the understated score and brilliant acting at moments of high drama—after Cameron and Christine are stopped by Officers Ryan and Hanson, or when Fahrad pays Daniel a visit. We are even treated to this style of soundtrack—along with slow motion and a long, dramatic track out—when Jean twists her ankle, which is not a particularly affecting or important moment in the film.
It's evident that a lot of care went into preparing these discs. The unusual color and lighting scheme of the film—with its soft contrasting blues and oranges rather than (ironically) blacks and whites—is well preserved here. The sound is crisp and well-balanced, and the menu screens in particular are quite beautiful (if a little reductive in the way they give each character a little icon and tagline).
The extras on this two-disc set are plentiful and broad-ranging, though I think hearing director Paul Haggis gushing about his film in so many different venues actually decreased my enjoyment of the feature. On the commentary track, in particular, he goes a little too far beyond justifiable pride, sinking into an off-putting reverence for his work. He speaks in a worshipful whisper during the scene with Daniel and his daughter under the bed, and frequently gasps, "Oh, look at that" in lieu of saying anything substantive. Also, he characterizes just about every shot of the talented Don Cheadle as a brilliant performance. One gets the impression that if Haggis happened upon Cheadle cleaning his bathroom or drinking a cup of coffee, he'd whip a camera out and capture the performance for a later project. Some of the more interesting bits of commentary explain the lighting and framing decisions and the hoops the crew had to go through to keep the film within their budget, including shooting many of their interior scenes in the actual homes of Haggis and Matt Dillon.
For anyone who, like me, is on the borderline between liking Crash and finding it overly precious, I would not recommend watching the definitively overly-precious featurettes. The longest and most watchable is "Behind Metal and Glass," a standard "making-of" segment that gives some interesting background about how Haggis wrote the script and how Cheadle got the rest of these wonderful actors on board. The others are more irritating, especially the preachy "Unspoken," a segment delving into the race issues presented in the film. Although I would be genuinely interested in a frank, multi-perspective discussion of said issues, the reductive tone of "Unspoken" is more about affirming Crash as an extremely important landmark in public communication about racial relations. I was impressed that they got an interview with the new Latino mayor of L.A., but was put off by their clichéd summation that racial healing "has to start somewhere" and the somewhat insulting insinuation that Crash is a good place for it to "start." I think the film is a good vehicle for serious conversations about race, but calling it a "starting point" for anything is a gross overstatement of its cultural and historical value. Perhaps the worst mistake this featurette makes is employing the "British narrators make everything better" logic to a piece about racial tensions in Los Angeles. So silly, even if the particular Brit is Thandie Newton. The most interesting aspect of the featurettes, actually, is the complex rhetorical game played by the actors when talking about the racism in the film and in their characters. Sandra Bullock, in particular, vehemently asserts that she found her character awful and that the things she said were in no way related to her own opinions and then later claims that, "if you leave this film and don't see yourself [in it], you're a liar. You're an absolute liar." This is a film about the universality of racism or at least the universal instinct of prejudice, which apparently applies to everyone in the country except for the actors playing these parts.
The script and storyboard-to-screen comparison features are fun, illuminating the creative process involved in transferring work from words to drawings to performances and showing us where the actors tweaked their lines and added their own personal touches. All of the music features, including the "In the Deep" so-called "music video," are simply pieces of music heard in the film with different scenes cut in under them—including, comically, some shots of Haggis directing his actors that really don't mix well with the heavy, dramatic score.
While I would recommend Crash for those who haven't seen it, this director's cut edition does not add much to the film for those who have. The feature is scarcely longer than the original release and the extras, though plentiful and well-produced, get tiresome rather quickly.
Judge Jennifer Malkowski finds Crash guilty of stealing Oscar glory from the superior Brokeback Mountain…but also of being a pretty decent film in its own right.
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Scales of Justice
• Introduction by Paul Haggis
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