Starring Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, William Fichtner, Brendan Fraser, Nona Gaye, Terrence Dashon Howard, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Thandie Newton, Michael Peña, Ryan Phillippe, Larenz Tate, Karina Arroyave, Dato Bakhtadze, Art Chudabala, Sean Cory, Tony Danza, Keith David, Loretta Devine, Ime N. Etuk, Eddie Fernandez, Howard Fong, Billy Gallo, Ken Garito, Octavio Gómez, James Haggis, Sylva Kelegian, Daniel Dae Kim, Bruce Kirby, Jayden Lund, Jack McGee, Amanda Moresco, Martin Norseman, Joe Ordaz, Greg Joung Paik, Yomi Perry, Alexis Rhee, Ashlyn Sanchez, Molly Schaffer, Paul E. Short, Marina Sirtis, Bahar Soomekh, Allan Steele, Kate Super, Glenn Taranto, Beverly Todd, Shaun Toub and Kathleen York.
Screenplay by Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco.
Directed by Paul Haggis.
Distributed by Lionsgate Films. 113 minutes. Rated R.
Once French film director Jean Renoir was asked why in his films there never seemed to be characters who were simply good guys and who were bad guys. The director simply paraphrased a line from one of his films, “Because everyone has their reasons.”
Crash is a movie that understands this point of view. It is look at the surprisingly intertwined lives of over a dozen people in Los Angeles over a 36-hour period. All of them do good things, all of them do bad things, but none of them can really be pegged in either way. Every time you think that you have a bead on who they are, they will do something to surprise you – for good or bad.
Crash starts out as an exploration of prejudice in America. However, it digs much deeper than you originally imagine, in an odd way overturning our prejudices about prejudice and showing how it may be ugly and it may be horrible, but it is not as black and white as you imagine. Often the people hurt by it are the ones who are making the snap judgments on the other people, not just the people that they wrong.
It shows all the destructive levels it can take; the whites don’t trust blacks, blacks don’t trust each other, Asians don’t trust Arabs, Persians don’t trust Latinos, and many other variations built around these basic groups. Regularly in the course of the film, people allow their fears and their preconceptions to cause them to do the wrong thing, often with disturbing or potentially dangerous results.
For better or worse, despite the screeching curves that these people are taking in their lives and the periodic moments of violent impact with other people, these are people trying just to live their lives the best they can. Through fear or selfishness or misunderstanding, they often sabotage themselves as they are getting up in the face of others. They’d rather find someone to blame for their problems than to have to blame themselves, and thus it becomes somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The film starts with two young African-Americans (Larenz Tate and surprisingly good rapper Ludacris) walking down the a crowded street in the Westwood section of LA (near the campus of UCLA). They are discussing race relations, why it is that they are looked upon as dangerous even though they are the only black faces in a sea of “over-caffeinated” white folks, they aren’t dressed like gang members, they don’t speak poorly. Just when you think that they have a valid point, the two pull guns and carjack a couple, the Los Angeles District Attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his unhappy, uptight wife (Sandra Bullock), stealing their SUV.
This kind of narrative change up is par for the course in Crash, just like it is in life. Things happen in a flash that can take years to overcome. People can be perfectly reasonable one moment, a dangerous threat the next.
Don Cheadle plays a cop who is the lover of his Latina partner (Jennifer Esposito), and yet, he is also casually cruel about her background; never bothering to learn that she is not Mexican but from Puerto Rican and Salvadoran parents, and then throwing in her face a racial stereotype that makes it obvious that he doesn’t think that there is much difference. He also tries to look after his junkie mother and his little brother who is quickly becoming a criminal, however he is completely unable to connect with them.
An Iranian immigrant shopkeeper (Shaun Toub) buys a gun to protect his store in a run-down section of LA, however he does not believe it when he is told he needs to replace the door in his store because he thinks the Hispanic man telling him is trying to scam him. Only the prescient early intervention by the shopkeeper’s daughter averts a potential tragedy.
Perhaps the most compelling performance, in a film that is full of them, is Matt Dillon as a veteran cop who is also an unabashed racist. Partnered with a liberal rookie (Ryan Phillippe), Dillon pulls over an African American television writer (Terrence Howard) and his light-skinned wife (Thandie Newton) who may have been performing a sex act that shouldn’t be done while driving, but it may also have been a case of DWB (Driving While Black). Dillon’s character does a very invasive search of the woman as the husband is forced to watch, and Phillippe, disgusted, can do nothing about it, though he does request a new partner.
However, just when you are ready to write off Dillon’s character as completely unredeemable, you learn more about him. He is caring for his ailing father alone (Bruce Kirby) and trying to negotiate with an unfeeling HMO provider for his care. His dealings with the HMO manager (Loretta Devine) take on a racial overtone that come from his helplessness. However, when he begs her not to let her personal feelings for him to color helping his father, who he describes as a good and just man, her inability to overlook her distaste for him just fuels his negative beliefs.
Dillon and Phillippe are later separately put in the position of saving both the television writer and his wife. (These occurrences may be a bit too coincidental, but the film is so well written and put together that I’m willing to give screenwriter/director Paul Haggis some slack.) Dillon’s character demonstrates what a good policeman he really is, while Phillippe finds himself doing something that he would never have imagined himself to be capable of. There is no good or bad. Everyone has their reasons.
A Chicano locksmith (Michael Peña) is the one character in the film who really does not show his dark side. Despite this fact, because of his background and looks (a buzz cut and tattoos), he is loudly assumed to be a gang-banger by the DA’s wife and called a scam artist by the Iranian shopkeeper; even though he is just trying to do his job and is actually a quiet family man who dotes on his five-year-old daughter. Towards the end, though, even he suffers a life-altering scare which has the potential to push him out of the light in the future. You hope that he will not seek revenge, however, as Crash so compellingly points out, you just never know when it comes to human reactions.
By the time all of the storylines play out, each of the characters are intertwined in surprising and illuminating ways. The audience realizes that just like the people on screen, most of their original perceptions of everyone are wrong. Many of the characters reach a moment of clarity, a realization that things are never quite as simple as they may seem. Not that this knowledge will likely cause wholesale change in their lives, but at least it will give them more perspective. Some others never really do, and they are forced to live with the pain that causes.
It’s still a little early to say, but right now Crash has to be considered the odds-on favorite for next year’s Best Picture Oscar. It’s hard to believe that there will be a film the rest of this year that will be much better. (5/05)
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: May 7, 2005.