Crash: Paul Haggis’ Provocative, Flawed Feature Directing Debut

Sporadically disturbing, Crash, Paul Haggis’ directorial debut, takes a provocative look at the complexities of racial intolerance in contemporary Los Angeles.

The film’s goal and scope are admirably ambitious, interweaving the stories of a dozen characters over a short yet intense period of time, resulting in a sprawling saga that brings to mind such impressive ensemble pieces as Altman’s Short Cuts. Like that film, Crash benefits from a wide gallery of characters, played by a talented cast, headed by Don Cheadle.

Diving headlong into the racial and class divide that defines current life in L.A., this almost compelling urban drama tracks the volatile intersections of multi-racial characters, struggling to overcome their anxieties as they careen in and out of one another’s lives.

Crash premiered last year at the Toronto Fest, but it’s a better time now to release the film, due to the increased visibility of Haggis, who wrote the screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby, and the higher profile of Don Cheadle after his Oscar-nominated performance in Hotel Rwanda.

Playing the tale’s most crucial figure, Cheadle is the only one who interacts with most of the other characters, serving as glue that links together the interconnected sub-stories.

Though some comparisons with Short Cuts are inevitable, the two films are different. Altman, you may recall, changed the original locale of the stories from the Northwest to Los Angeles, and he offered a cynical (for some misanthropic) look at the city’s denizens from the outside.

In contrast, Haggis is an Angeleno, who knows city’s inner life better and from the inside. But, unfortunately, Crash doesn’t utilize many distinctive locations of L.A., perhaps a function of the low budget. With the exception of some Highways scenes, the locales settings could have existed in any other city. In other words, Crash lacks a specific physical reality, which is a shortcoming since the film is not meant to be a symbolic allegory of urban life in general. Of course, racial intolerance and hate crimes prevail in most American cities, but Crash is grounded in L.A., a city that with its unique racial make-up, will be the first metropolitan where whites denizens will become a minority in the near future.

Lacking subtlety, the film’s first part is too blatant in its expositions and too heavy-handed. Every character is on the verge of hysteria or nervous breakdown, which keeps the story tense, but also makes it preachy, predictable, and tiresome in the first chapters. Gradually though, Crash ceases to divide its characters into good and bad, heroes and villains, and situates itself in the ambiguous gray area between black and white, turning victims into aggressors and vice versa.

The saga boasts a wide assortment of characters, divided along of race, class, and gender lines. They include a white Brentwood couple of a housewife and her DA husband, a Persian storeowner and his family, two police detectives who are also lovers, an African-American TV director and his wife, a Mexican locksmith and his family, two black carjackers, a couple of cops (one vet, the other rookie), a middle-aged Korean couple.

As multi-racial as New York or Chicago are, they are markedly different from L.A. In N.Y., people are forced to live with one another by the nature of the city and its demographics. In L.A., people get in their cars, drive to work, and then drive home. For the most part, there is no need to spend time with anyone else. Hence the apt title: Crash is L.A., because Crash is cars; we protect ourselves in our cars.

The story involves a tapestry of strangers whose lives collide during the days before Christmas. When Crash film begins, the only thing the characters share in common is that they all live in L.A. However, in the next 36 hours, their divergent worlds will collide, literally, through car crashes that bookend the movie, and socially too, through various encounters, some planned, others random and spontaneous.

Take Jean Cabot (Sandra Bullock), the lonely, suspicious wife of the ambitious District Attorney Rick (Brendan Frazer), who, in the first scene, become victims of carjacking that sets off a chain of events. The carjacking that happens to Jean and Rick awakens Jean’s character to the emptiness of her “safe” life. She’s has built her life around things that are trivial and fake. Her husband-district attorney is essentially a good man, but he is also fallible, and he’s forced to face a moral conundrum at work that will affect his personal life as well.

Or police officer Tom Hansen (Ryan Phillippe), who takes a wrong turn, despite good intentions. Hansen represents the type of police officer most people would want patrolling their neighborhood, the guy who always wants to do the right thing. However, by the end of the film, Hansen too finds himself pushed to the edge. The slightest choice made, which may not seem that important at the time, can result in huge ramifications–a ripple effect. Strangers can affect and change our lives in a more profound way than our families and friends.

The upscale Cameron and Christine (Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton) constantly ask themselves whether they’re for real or just playing roles. Their tragedy resides in the feeling that, as Afro-Americans, they are not entitled to their wealth or class, even though they have earned it.

Matt Dillon plays the most extreme character, a cop who’s rough, angry, and prone to physical and sexual abuse. Confident and competent with his duties as an officer, he also abuses them, and he has avoided dealing with his real feelings. However, like all other characters, there are two sides to Officer Ryan, who’s not really a bad person, and certainly loves and is devoted to his dying father.

Police officer Graham Waters (Cheadle) is the only character that touches most of the lives in the story, including his angry mother and missing brother, who might have become a criminal. However, unlike most traditionally structured films, Crash doesn’t unfold from Graham’s individual POV. Cheadle conveys beautifully his character’s relentless pursuit of truth on the job and the overload of pain and suffering this process has entailed. Graham has divorced himself, either by circumstances or by his own doing, from real emotions.

If Crash escapes genre categorization, it doesn’t escapes tonal categorization. For the most part, the film’s worldview is dire and pessimistic. Haggis wants his movie to work as a realistic tale and as morality or cautionary play. Occasionally, there’s a ray of hope, but one achieved at a heavy price, through levity, heartbreak, and tragedy.

Reportedly, the screenplay for Crash sprang from a complex web of personal experiences and observations. Haggis was carjacked at gunpoint coming out of a video store in L.A, after which he rushed home and changed all the locks. He then started to wonder about the men who stole his car, whether they considered themselves criminals, and how they justified their actions. Haggis decided to write about the traumatic experience, not from his subjective perspective, but from the carjackers’ POV.

Haggis claims that his ideas crystallized after 9/11, when he understood that his movie was not just about race or class but also about fears of any kind of strangers or foreigners. Crash touches deep chords with the audience. We have all witnessed subtle and not so subtle racial and class warfare, routine situations in which we discriminate against each other, the ways in which we rationalize and excuse it. The movie is about how we all hate to be judged yet seeing no contradiction in judging others. We organize our lives so that we don’t have to deal with racial problems, and even deny or pretend that they exist.

The film cashes in on the notion that, on some level, every American is touched by the question of race; there’s no escape from it. It depicts people who live in an ambience of fear and paranoia, where President and his administration, as Michael Moore showed in Fahrenheit 9/11, use and abuse that fear in order to control us, and the mass media use that fear to manipulate us. Those fear resonate and distort how we perceive the world around us.

The film serves as a reminder of how insulated and detached life in L.A. could be and often is, that it sometimes requires a catastrophic event to make us either feel or acknowledge what’s actually going on. Ultimately, Crash preaches against complacency that’s a result of easy, comfortable lives.

Part of the power of Crash lies in its ability to elicit chuckles at one moment and squirms the next. The specific reactions of viewers to the film will depend on their personal experience. Hopefully, the film will result in a more informed self-inspection, conversation, and perhaps even action about these issues.

The gallery of individuals is wide and diverse enough to allow most viewers to find a character to relate too. Indeed, Crash isn’t a film about other people, but about people like us, who think they know who they are, but only when really tested, they realize how ignorant they are about their own feelings and prejudices.

Haggis is interested in contesting racial stereotypes and preconceptions that modern life forces us to make when we meet strangers or people that are different from us. To his credit, none of the characters escape unscathed, and everybody gets their due, from the black to the white to the Asian to the Latino communities.

Crash is better written (by Haggis and Robby Moresco) than directed, perhaps a result of the fact that Haggis is a novice filmmaker. The dark, fractured portrait that emerges in Crash should not turn off viewers. Though not a message film with neat solutions, Crash is polemical, sort of investigative report on the state of race relations today.

Daring to reveal the harder truths about American urbanite, and allowing the unspoken to be spoken, Crash reveals more about people than they care to know, much less show. A necessary wake-up call, ht movie shows that we are only a block away from falling apart, one block away from crashing.