Crash (United States/Germany, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Ensemble features can be daunting, yet some filmmakers embrace the challenge, and their results reward an audience. A lot of characters are woven into the tapestry of Crash, the feature directing debut of TV veteran Paul Haggis. (Haggis was also Oscar nominated for writing the screenplay of Million Dollar Baby.) The story unfolds in Los Angeles, where hostility is often a barrier to intimacy, and hatred and fear cloud judgment. Don Cheadle plays Graham Waters, a police detective investigating what may be a racially-motivated killing. Graham is having an affair with his Latina partner (Jennifer Esposito), whom he variously refers to as "a white woman" and "Mexican," neither of which is accurate. Matt Dillon is LAPD officer Jack Ryan, a 17 year veteran of the force whose actions often cross the line. When he fondles a woman (Thandie Newton) during a routine traffic stop, his partner (Ryan Phillippe) wants to sever their professional relationship. Meanwhile, the D.A., Rick Cameron (Brendan Fraser), and his wife, Jean (Sandra Bullock), become crime victims when their car is stolen by a pair of thieves (Chris "Ludicris" Bridges and Larenz Tate).

The best ensemble films are the ones in which the characters are given an opportunity to breathe (Magnolia, Short Cuts, and Nashville come to mind). With Crash, 105 minutes is barely enough time to let the numerous participants begin to inhale. The movie runs for long enough to allow Haggis to present the story, but we're left wanting a little more - a few extra scenes and an added conversation or two (especially between Newton's character and her husband, played by Terrence Dashon Howard). But I suppose it's always best to leave an audience hungry, rather than feeling overstuffed.

Crash's strength is that it deals intelligently with serious subjects. Racism is a hot-button issue, yet Haggis manages to approach it in a universal, reasonable manner. We don't feel like we're being preached to, nor does this seem like a sanctimonious "message movie." The film's numerous stories are tied together by a web of coincidence. Af first, there's a sense that so much contrivance invites criticism. However, on a second viewing, I was aware of the balance and symmetry in the way the characters' tales connect, sometimes only tangentially. Haggis has created a microcosmos, so it's only right for plot-lines to criss-cross.

The director has assembled a large, accomplished cast that includes Matt Dillon, Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Thandie Newton, and Ryan Phillippe. Amongst other things, this group virtually assures that the film will be seen. All are more than competent in their roles - with Cheadle, Dillon, and Newton being especially memorable - and each does his or her best to enhance the two-dimensionality of the characters as they are presented in the screenplay. The most powerful scene in Crash has Dillon and Newton confronting mistrust on the cusp of mortality.

The principle subject matter is racism and its manifestations, and how it is often as much the result of social conditioning and anger as of hatred and intolerance. In addition to the usual white-on-black manifestation of discrimination, we are confronted with black-on-Latino, Latino-on-Asian, white-on-Middle Eastern, and other permutations. Wherever cultural differences exist, there is room for tension. However, by depicting bigoted characters as otherwise caring individuals, Crash asks us to consider the causes of racism as much as to examine its effects. In doing this, Crash sets itself apart, at least to a degree, from other, similar motion pictures. Although an expanded running time would have afforded us the opportunity to get to know the characters better, Crash is long enough to permit the film's themes to strike a responsive chord.

Crash (United States/Germany, 2004)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2005-05-06
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1