"Crash" tells interlocking stories of whites, blacks, Latinos, Koreans, Iranians, cops and criminals, the rich and the poor, the powerful and powerless, all defined in one way or another by racism. All are victims of it, and all are guilty it. Sometimes, yes, they rise above it, although it is never that simple. Their negative impulses may be instinctive, their positive impulses may be dangerous, and who knows what the other person is thinking?
The result is a movie of intense fascination; we understand quickly enough who the characters are and what their lives are like, but we have no idea how they will behave, because so much depends on accident. Most movies enact rituals; we know the form and watch for variations. "Crash" is a movie with free will, and anything can happen. Because we care about the characters, the movie is uncanny in its ability to rope us in and get us involved.
"Crash" was directed by Paul Haggis, whose screenplay for "Million Dollar Baby" led to Academy Awards. It connects stories based on coincidence, serendipity, and luck, as the lives of the characters crash against one another other like pinballs. The movie presumes that most people feel prejudice and resentment against members of other groups, and observes the consequences of those feelings.
One thing that happens, again and again, is that peoples' assumptions prevent them from seeing the actual person standing before them. An Iranian (Shaun Toub) is thought to be an Arab, although Iranians are Persian. Both the Iranian and the white wife of the district attorney (Sandra Bullock) believe a Mexican-American locksmith (Michael Pena) is a gang member and a crook, but he is a family man.
A black cop (Don Cheadle) is having an affair with his Latina partner (Jennifer Esposito), but never gets it straight which country she's from. A cop (Matt Dillon) thinks a light-skinned black woman (Thandie Newton) is white. When a white producer tells a black TV director (Terrence Dashon Howard) that a black character "doesn't sound black enough," it never occurs to him that the director doesn't "sound black," either. For that matter, neither do two young black men (Larenz Tate and Ludacris), who dress and act like college students, but have a surprise for us.
You see how it goes. Along the way, these people say exactly what they are thinking, without the filters of political correctness. The district attorney's wife is so frightened by a street encounter that she has the locks changed, then assumes the locksmith will be back with his "homies" to attack them. The white cop can't get medical care for his dying father, and accuses a black woman at his HMO with taking advantage of preferential racial treatment. The Iranian can't understand what the locksmith is trying to tell him, freaks out, and buys a gun to protect himself. The gun dealer and the Iranian get into a shouting match.
I make this sound almost like episodic TV, but Haggis writes with such directness and such a good ear for everyday speech that the characters seem real and plausible after only a few words. His cast is uniformly strong; the actors sidestep cliches and make their characters particular.
For me, the strongest performance is by Matt Dillon, as the racist cop in anguish over his father. He makes an unnecessary traffic stop when he thinks he sees the black TV director and his light-skinned wife doing something they really shouldn't be doing at the same time they're driving. True enough, but he wouldn't have stopped a black couple or a white couple. He humiliates the woman with an invasive body search, while her husband is forced to stand by powerless, because the cops have the guns -- Dillon, and also an unseasoned rookie (Ryan Phillippe), who hates what he's seeing but has to back up his partner.
That traffic stop shows Dillon's cop as vile and hateful. But later we see him trying to care for his sick father, and we understand why he explodes at the HMO worker (whose race is only an excuse for his anger). He victimizes others by exercising his power, and is impotent when it comes to helping his father. Then the plot turns ironically on itself, and both of the cops find themselves, in very different ways, saving the lives of the very same TV director and his wife. Is this just manipulative storytelling? It didn't feel that way to me, because it serves a deeper purpose than mere irony: Haggis is telling parables, in which the characters learn the lessons they have earned by their behavior.
Other cross-cutting Los Angeles stories come to mind, especially Lawrence Kasdan's more optimistic "Grand Canyon" and Robert Altman's more humanistic "Short Cuts." But "Crash" finds a way of its own. It shows the way we all leap to conclusions based on race -- yes, all of us, of all races, and however fair-minded we may try to be -- and we pay a price for that. If there is hope in the story, it comes because as the characters crash into one another, they learn things, mostly about themselves. Almost all of them are still alive at the end, and are better people because of what has happened to them. Not happier, not calmer, not even wiser, but better. Then there are those few who kill or get killed; racism has tragedy built in.
Not many films have the possibility of making their audiences better people. I don't expect "Crash" to work any miracles, but I believe anyone seeing it is likely to be moved to have a little more sympathy for people not like themselves. The movie contains hurt, coldness and cruelty, but is it without hope? Not at all. Stand back and consider. All of these people, superficially so different, share the city and learn that they share similar fears and hopes. Until several hundred years ago, most people everywhere on earth never saw anybody who didn't look like them. They were not racist because, as far as they knew, there was only one race. You may have to look hard to see it, but "Crash" is a film about progress.
Crash is a drama film produced in the United States that premiered at the Toronto International Festival on September 10, 2004. The film’s main theme is racial and ethnic stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination—all of which are still present in modern American society. The film was produced and directed by Paul Haggis, and is based on a personal biographical experience of the director being carjacked outside a video store in 1991. The director assembled a celebrity cast on the set, including Ryan Phillippe, Sandra Bullock, Terrence Howard, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Brandon Fraser, Michael Peña, Jennifer Esposito, and many other well-known actors.
The film takes place in Los Angeles, where eight different stories are developed over a two-day period. There is the story of a Persian immigrant, who struggles to protect his small shop from burglars; an African-American Hollywood director and his wife, who have to put up with sexual harassment by a racist policeman; a district attorney and his wife, who are carjacked by two African-American teenagers; a poor Hispanic locksmith, who lives in an unsafe neighborhood and returns home to find his small daughter hiding under the bed because of the gunshots outside, as well as some other interrelated stories.
The plot of the film is rather unusual since it revolves around various characters that seem to be unrelated to each other in any way. However, this impression slowly dissipates in the second part of the film, when viewers begin to link all the stories with each other and see the full picture behind them. There is one general topic that all the stories have in common—social and racial tensions in Los Angeles, while there are also several subtopics that are revealed in each particular story in the film: violence, immigration, deprivation, social inequality, ethnic stereotypes, anger, criminal situations, racism, and other related issues.
It is worth noting that, for most of the film, the viewer is kept in suspense and strained as the characters communicate with each other with trepidation, and at times even aggression and direct violence. The actors have successfully managed to depict their characters’ inner conflicts and struggles with their personal beliefs, as well as, social stigmas. By the end of the film, it is hard to classify any character as explicitly bad, even though there has been a lot of racism and anger expressed by some of the characters. The reason for that is because the storyline puts the characters in the kind of situations where they have to decide whether they dare to trust their intuition, in spite of some stereotypes and fears they consciously or unconsciously have, and risk their lives believing in the innate goodness of people.
For example, I was particularly struck by the story of a young police officer, played by Ryan Phillippe, who first comes across as a positive character, disgusted by the racist beliefs of his older companion. On his way home from work, the officer picks up a hitchhiker, and they start a friendly conversation, albeit with a hint of tension. However, the officer is far from being free of prejudice himself and when put into a particularly stressful situation and suspecting the African-American teenager to be a gang member and a threat to his life, this officer, unwilling to bear the risk, shoots the young man only because the latter could have presented a danger to him. The young man, in fact, was harmless in that situation and did not present any threat to the officer whatsoever. The bitter irony of the whole situation is that later, ashamed by his own cowardly and indecent act, the officer does an even more terrible deed—he dumps the body of the poor teen into a roadside ditch and drives away.
What I found particularly effective about Crash is the element of ambiguity in every character in the film, even the racist and cruel older police officer played by Matt Dillon, who courageously saves the life of the woman he humiliated the night before. At the end of the film, viewers are left in a kind of troubled reverie. Some curious viewers may even attempt to psychoanalyze the characters on a more personal level, projecting some situations from the film on their own lives and asking themselves whether they would have acted differently, and whether they are free from these obsolete and primitive stereotypes, so firmly rooted in the characters’ subconsciousness.
Even though some viewers might find it hard at first to quickly switch from one story to the other, such an approach to storytelling in my opinion is completely justified. The director obviously did a great job combining the stories in a natural and realistic manner. By the end of the film, when the stories are linked together, the viewer is able to evaluate and review them individually, and the whole social situation in general, from a more integrated perspective. With the powerful and gutsy performance of the celebrity cast, strong and moving life stories and the whole atmosphere of sharp, cruel yet captivating dramatic twists in every story portrayed, Crash is brilliant in its profound realism and pervasive depth.
The film has received generally positive reviews and was a box office success. It was nominated for six Academy awards in 2006 and won three of them: for best picture, best editing, and best original screenplay. The film currently has a score of 76% positive reviews on the website Rotten Tomatoes and 8.0 on IMDb (Internet Movie Database).
Crash is definitely a movie worth seeing, especially because it is essential to be aware of and acknowledge those social issues that are the focus of the film. Even though it is quite possible that some viewers might not agree with the director’s view on the modern-day American big-city social and cultural peculiarities, I am rather positive that any audience of twenty-five years and up will find some of the portrayed scenarios to be topical problems of today’s America. The least this movie can do is give some food for thought and some reasons to take an extrinsic look at our own stereotypes and inflexible beliefs, and possibly reconsider them, like some characters in the movie did.
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