Crash (Canada, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It has been called brave, rousing, and shocking. At the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, where it received its world premiere, it was both hailed and booed, and received a special jury prize for "originality, daring, and audacity." Ted Turner, who owns Fine Line Features, labeled it "really weird." Britain's Evening Standard called it "beyond the bounds of depravity." Yet for all the opinions floating around about how ground-breaking and controversial Crash is, I found it to be something of a letdown.

Crash has a couple of concepts which are, admittedly, fascinating and original, but not a whole lot more. The movie tries to milk these themes for one-hundred minutes, but basically runs out of interesting material in less than a third of that time. From the half-hour point on, Crash subsists on style alone. It's a slim cinematic diet that will have viewers squirming in their seats long before the end credits roll. Despite all the naked flesh and flashy car accidents, Crash is basically a bore.

The central premise of Crash, which writer/director/producer David Cronenberg (The Fly, Dead Ringers) has adapted from the book by J.G. Ballard, deals with what Variety dubbed "auto-eroticism". The film, like the novel, focuses on a group of people who are turned on by car accidents. The more serious the crash, the more powerful the stimulation. Death, danger, dismemberment, and sexuality are all interconnected. Penetration, whether of flesh into flesh, metal into metal, or metal into flesh, leads to release, either of sexual energy, life, or both.

It's well known that for some people, a sense of danger enhances sex. There are the so-called "gaspers" who like to be strangled while approaching orgasm. There are those who crave sadomasochistic role-playing. And, as depicted here, there are those who get off on car crashes. They can be participants or observers, but, in the presence of such raw destructive power and mayhem, they become aroused. Crash follows the exploits of five such characters -- three female and two male -- all of whom, at one time or another, give themselves over to sexual abandon as the result of an automotive disaster.

The main character, James Ballard (James Spader), who takes his name from the book's author, is involved in an open marriage to Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger). The two have sexual encounters with others, then come home and make love while telling about the experiences. One day, James is involved in a head-on collision. The driver of the other car is killed; his wife, Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), survives, but is injured. While James is recovering in the hospital, he meets the mysterious Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a friend of Helen's with a strange fascination for accident victims.

Soon after his release from the hospital, James encounters Helen at the police impound for wrecked cars. The two have a torrid sexual encounter which leads to James' initiation into an elite group of men and women who intertwine eroticism with crashes. In addition to James, Helen, and Vaughan, there's also a woman named Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), who wears leather leg braces and metal body supports like badges of honor. She is, in Vaughan's words, reshaping her body through the use of modern technology. Along with James' intrigued-but-reluctant wife, these characters explore sexual and physical boundaries, visiting accident sites and re-enacting famous collisions (such as those of James Dean and Jayne Mansfield).

All of this sounds reasonably interesting, and it is, at least for about half an hour. After that, Crash becomes repetitious and tedious. In the wake of the initial flurry of eye-opening material, the film is content to re-tread the same ideas, never striking out in new directions or offering a different approach. There's no plot to speak of -- just a series of visceral images loosely strung together to approximate a narrative. More importantly and most frustratingly, there's no real character development. The five main figures are ciphers and mouthpieces for cryptic ideas, not legitimate personalities. We never connect with them on an emotional, psychological, or intellectual level. They're script constructs, necessary only because Cronenberg needs one or two- dimensional people to convey certain themes.

The aspect of Crash most likely to retain a viewer's attention is its style. Cronenberg, along with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, has given this film a darkly original look, filled with shocking images of violent crashes and raw sex. Unger, Hunter, and Arquette are called upon to expose just about everything, and some of the accidents, with their twisted metal and shattered glass, seem sickeningly real. Often, watching Crash makes you feel like a voyeur peeping through blinds or glancing covertly at a roadside collision.

The three females all bring something interesting to their performances. Hunter allows Helen to be uncertain of the implications surrounding her newly-discovered fetish, Unger mixes pathos with a strangely icy sensuality, and Arquette is both sexy and vulnerable in her metal-and-leather outfit. The standout performance belongs to Canadian actor Elias Koteas (Exotica), who is provocative and persuasive as the Svengali-like leader of the group. From an acting standpoint, the weak link is James Spader, who mistakenly thinks that the blandness he exhibited in sex, lies, and videotape serves him well here. His character is poorly developed to begin with; Spader does nothing to invest Ballard with any additional life.

There are many movie-goers who will see Crash exclusively because it has caused such a stir, and many more who will avoid it for the same reason. However, while there is a lot of sex in the film, the NC-17 rating seems more obligatory than necessary. There's nothing exceptionally graphic or startling here. If not for the quantity of sex shots and the somewhat-kinky nature, a hard R would have been equally appropriate. As for Crash's substance -- the film presents some provocative ideas, but, without characters or a plot to deliver them, they have a minimal impact.

Crash (Canada, 1996)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 1997-03-21
MPAA Rating: "NC-17" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Violence, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1