Set over the course of two nights and one day, this multi-stranded ensemble drama dissects the turbulent state of race relations in LA. The Latino locksmith, the redneck beat cop, the Iranian-American shopkeeper, the WASP DAs wife all these disparate li
In the prologue to Paul Haggis’ ambitious directorial debut, Los Angeles police detective Graham Waters (Don Cheadle), dazed after a traffic accident, muses distractedly over whether the denizens of LA subconsciously engineer the odd fender-bender as a means of making contact with their fellow citizens. It’s a fleeting, almost dream-like moment, one of many that Haggis (screenwriter of Million Dollar Baby) juxtaposes with gritty realism and high drama, to paint a highly personal portrait of this unique city.
The metropolis itself doesn’t interest Haggis so much as the labyrinthine matrix of race relations it fosters. Crash opens proper with two African-American youths strolling late at night through a smart shopping mall, one of them (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges) pontificating on the suspicious glances and instinctive wariness their presence elicits from the rich white folks. It’s a familiar spiel and your heart sinks at the prospect of a wordy, didactic seminar from a director out to prove he’s down with the brothers. A moment later, however, the rug is pulled smartly out from under us. The character is wordy and didactic, yes, but not the film. He is also — as he proves when he and his partner carjack a young District Attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his wife (Sandra Bullock) — everything he despises white people for suspecting he is.
It's a feature of the brilliant screenplay that first impressions are constantly knocked sideways. When the taint of tokenism threatens to creep in, it’s invariably dispelled by a deeper insight or a veer into tragedy, occasionally even farce, that lays naive preconceptions mercilessly bare. The robbery sets in train a narrative of escalating complexity through which Haggis attempts to put a human face on LA’s multicultural plight via a cast of characters drawn from every facet of the city’s diverse ethnic spectrum, whose lives intersect at various incendiary junctures over an intense 36-hour period.
It’s the human drama, laced so poetically into its cultural context, that makes Crash such riveting viewing. And when, as happens on occasion, Haggis stretches credibility to breaking point or ladles on the pathos, he is saved by his universally outstanding cast. It’s unfair to single anyone out, but Matt Dillon is superb as the ostensibly standard-issue LAPD redneck, as are Terrence Dashon Howard as a self-satisfied TV producer facing a life-changing identity crisis, and Bullock as a scared rich bitch retreating into loneliness and paranoia behind the walls of her Beverly Hills mansion.
Of course, Los Angeles serves as more than a mere backdrop. Crucial to Haggis’ depiction of life in the City Of Angels are its sprawling infrastructure; its near-total reliance on hermetically sealed automobiles; its ghettoising freeway system that carves unbridgeable psychological gulfs between rich neighbourhoods and poor; its desolate sidewalks, deserted subway stations
and monolithic parking lots, all of which contribute to a pall of mistrust that hangs as heavy in the air as smog.
If the message in this electrifying film is not overtly one of optimism, it is at least one of hope. There’s no plea for peace, love and understanding here — Haggis is too honest for that. Still, Crash depicts not so much a population failing to live in harmony, but one somehow just about succeeding — in spite of a grimly stacked deck, as well as its own myopia, stupidity and knee-jerk intolerance.
A haunting, perceptive and uncompromising examination of controversial subject matter, expertly written and directed by Paul Haggis and characterised by excellent performances from its starry cast.