A film review by Craig J. Koban

RANK: # 4

CRASH jjjj

2005, R, 100 mins.

Jean: Sandra Bullock / Graham: Don Cheadle / Officer Ryan: Matt Dillion / Ria: Jennifer Esposito / Flanagan: William Fichtner / Rick: Brendan Fraser / Cameron: Terrence Dashon Howard / Anthony: Ludacris

Directed by Paul Haggis /  Written by Haggis and Robert Moresco

 "Racism is man's gravest threat to man - the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason."

Abraham J. Heschel - Jewish theologian and philospher


When I was a lowly undergraduate student trying to eek out a modest living in order to fund my education, I worked at a video store.  The store that I worked at was a rather marginalized one if you were to compare it to the mega-stores that seem to thrive on global domination like Blockbuster, but never mind.   

Anyway, the store was situated in one of the "tougher" areas of town with a high prevalence of one particular ethnic minority that shall remain nameless.  With all due respect, I had a very decent rapport with these minority customers and dealt with them on a daily basis.  Basically, work life with them was good, but there were times when I would get more than frustrated with them, especially when dealing with a couple that would, more times than not, speak in broken English to me and then proceed to speak in their native language to themselves.  Not only did this frustrate me (how could I effectively deal with them if I couldn't understand them?), but for some inane reason it used to make me obsessively irritated and bitter.  How dare they speak behind my back in their language!  How would I know if they were not talking about me behind my back? I mean, c'mon!! 

The one thing that these feelings of intense anger taught me, because we all know that hindsight is 20/20, is truly what unnecessary and ridiculous feelings there were.  In reality, the couple in question were not plotting in some elaborate conspiracy to harm me, mentally or physically, in any real way.  More than anything, the couple were simply trying to communicate to one another in a manner that was the easiest for them in order to make their movie renting decision that much quicker.  My angry feelings were both frivolous and brainless and reflected a dark side of my otherwise kind nature.  It’s shocking how easy it is for an otherwise good and decent man to become volatile about other human beings because of a minor cultural difference. 

There is a small moment in the provocative, hypnotically watchable, and hyper articulate new drama CRASH that reminded me of these silly feelings I had during my one night at the video store.  In the film an Iranian goes into a gun store to purchase a small firearm.  The gun shop owner is white, and grows increasingly agitated by the fact that the innocent Iranian is communicating to his daughter in his native language in order to help smooth out his purchasing decision.  The owner quickly becomes irate, starts making vile and baseless accusations at the Iranian that he is a terrorist, and soon throws him out of his shop before their verbal shouts become physical ones.  Anger and hostility permeates this scene in sort of a disturbing, disgusting, and completely frustrating and needless way. 

That is the genius of the CRASH, which is one of the best American films to be bestowed on the film-going public in many a moon.  It was co-written and directed by Paul Haggis and it's his first feature behind the camera.  You may remember his Academy Award winning screenplay for last year’s MILLION DOLLAR BABY.  One may think that Haggis may not have been an ideal choice to tackle the troubling and disheartening subject matter of CRASH (his past and dubious TV credits includes creating WALKER, TEXAS RANGER and writing episodes of DUE SOUTH, DIFF’RENT STROKES, and THE TRACY ULLMAN SHOW).   However, with films like last year’s Best Picture winner and now CRASH Haggis is slowly emerging as a major, major talent in the cinema.  CRASH marks one of the best debut films that I have ever seen - a work so invigorating, fascinating, emotional, scary, and unnerving that seeing it once is not enough.   

This is a film that needs to be seen.  Once in a while a movie comes around that sort of falls in your lap and is a reflective mirror into many of our modern problems and anxieties that plague our daily lives, even if we are not willing to otherwise acknowledge their existence.  CRASH is one of these films, a discomforting, enormously observant, intelligent, riveting, shocking, and brilliant expose of urban warfare of the worst kind.  This is one of the most angry films I’ve seen where all of its characters, who range from whites, blacks, Latinos, Koreans, Iranians, cops and criminals, and the affluent and the downtrodden, are all shown at their best and worst.  What Haggis does here is incredibly even-handed and fair, as he shows how devastatingly easy it is for anyone, regardless of ethnicity, to become a vindictive and putrid racist at the peak of xenophobia.  Haggis speaks a message here that many may already subscribe to – just because you are a member of a seemingly oppressed minority that does not mean that you can’t become an oppressor. 

That’s what CRASH is all about.  It tells us a series of interlocking narratives that demonstrates the disintegration of moral values and common decency in all people.  The film reveals the darker underbelly of society where everyone in it, regardless of race or status, is capable of being defined by their pigheaded paranoia and their hostility towards those that are different from them.  What is amazing about Haggis’ work is that he paints a portrait of how all of the bigots are both perpetrators of ethnocentric acts and are simultaneously victims of it.  CRASH is an ensemble film to its core, and with a cross-cutting and interlocking series of vignettes that weave and interweave upon one another to create a cohesive whole, the result is a work as liberating, literate, and compelling as similar films like MAGNOLIA, NASHVILLE, and SHORTCUTS.   

The title, I think, kind of refers to the nature of human beings in how the lives of people that are polar opposites can collide or “crash” into one another’s own feelings of intolerance and prejudice.  More than anything, the film deals with how these racial divides manifest into hurtful consequences.  Although all of the characters in the film are superficially different and come from cultures very far removed from one another, they nevertheless share two simple things in common.  Firstly, they all occupy and live in the same city.  Secondly, they all have similar fears and aspirations.  All of the characters, I felt, desperately want to be good and noble people, but too many times they act with their guts and not with their heads.  Yes, the message of Haggis’ film is that, no matter how hard we try to be level-headed and good-natured to people, our ignorant impulses often drive our behaviour with devastating repercussions.  All races, it seems, can easily jump to negative and paranoid conclusions with far too much haste.  CRASH is one of the great psychological horror films about presumption and what a powerfully negative force it can be. 

CRASH is also a great actor’s film and headlines an impressive list of terrific talent that are given opportunities to sink their teeth into roles that are more fleshed out and bitterly honest than any other to grace the screen this year.  The film is like a narrative jigsaw puzzle, which starts with a series of seemingly non-connective pieces and then it slowly reveals itself and how all of those pieces flow together and fit.  CRASH is a serendipitous film about things that happen again and again to people until all of the their lives eventually touch an aspect of the other.   All of them, at one point, reveal their petty and stupid ignorance.  

I have already mentioned the Iranian man (Shaun Toub) who is chastised for being a violent and evil Arab terrorist.  However, we also have the white wife of a district attorney (Sandra Bullock’s Oscar worthy turn here) who believes that her Mexican American locksmith (Michael Pena) is a brutal gangbanger who will give out their keys to his posse.  Bullock never sees this man for what he actually is - a caring and loving father.  However, her racism is not a “white” thing.  Later in the film, the same Iranian who was earlier berated for his ethnicity later condemns the young Mexican as a crook. 

The narrow-mindedness does not end there.  There are also discriminatory ideals coming from the film’s black characters,  One black cop (in another effortless and effective performance by the great Don Cheedle) is having an affair with his Latino partner (Jennifer Esposito) who he seems to think is Mexican, but not from El Salvador.  There is also the obligatorical crooked white member of the LAPD (played by Matt Dillon, who reminds us why he is capable of being a great actor) who at one point stops a black couple for doing something lewd in their car while driving.  Okay, that seems fair, but would he have stopped the same car driven by a white couple?  Moreover, would he have pulled over a white couple and humiliated a white woman with an invasive body search while her husband looked on?  Dillon’s young partner despises his abuse of authority, but a later crucial scene in the film tests the young rookie’s own feelings towards a member of the opposite race.  Then there are also two black kids (Larenz Tate and Ludacris) who engage in one wild night, to be sure.  One seems like a levelheaded and decent pragmatist, whereas the other seems to think that every other race has it out for them. 

This film sort of sounds forced and manipulative in its approach, and many may find that it is shamefully contrived with the way it interlocks the stories of all of these characters to touch each other at some point.  Yet, Haggis’s screenplay is so direct, frank and thoughtful with its personas that they take on a level of intense verisimilitude despite the story’s preordained architecture.  The one aspect of the film that I cherished was also one of the things that made it a disgusting experience to watch – this is a film where the characters are completely uncensored.  Too many films that try to be parables about modern city life seem so sanitized by the pervasive PC police that their true intentions and messages get missed altogether.  CRASH is one of the most refreshingly un-PC dramas and it is one where its characters say exactly what they think and feel without much care about the effects that their spiteful words will have. 

The film seems so embodied with hostility and it is a rather contemptible film-going experience.  Yet, despite its obvious transgressions into the seedier and brasher aspects of humanity, CRASH is also a film with a light at the end of the tunnel.  Yes, the characters are extraordinarily antagonistic and  tactless to one another, but as the film progresses it achieves the amazing – it offers up hope to all of the racists that inspires us re-thinking our attitudes about all of them.  They have all engaged in behaviour that has deeply penetrated and wounded others, but it is through their actions where lessons are made on all of their behalves.  There is a glimmer of hope for them, and they learn maybe not to be smarter or more sensitive people in the end, but perhaps to just be a bit healthier in their outlook.     

No more is this true with the character of the cop played by Dillon, who just may be the best-written character all year.  He’s so fascinating not because he’s a textbook case of discrimination, but more because of how multi-faceted he is.  He’s a racist with more going on underneath his foul exterior than we would assume.  Some of his acts are deplorable, but other times in the film he is shown as a hero with such a sense of courage and self-sacrifice that he sort of earns our respect despite his predilections towards victimizing others.  We want to hate him, but some of his other actions in the film make us perceive him differently.   

He is a caring son to his sick father and we completely understand when his HMO worker refuses aid to his father (I am sure that we have all been placed in similar and exasperating circumstances).  He does get upset at the black worker and despises the fact that she (perhaps) got her job because of an affirmative action protocol.  But then he reveals something deeper to his character, like how his father gave dozens of blacks jobs when no other white man would.  Maybe his racism stems not from a deep hatred of all black people, but perhaps more over a wounded sense of bitterness over the fact that his father, who helped and sheltered black people and gave them hope, is now suffering greatly because a HMO worker, who too is black, does not seem to be helping very much.  Dillon also seems to put his racial ambivalence aside during a daring and memorable moment where he saves the life of one black character that drips with dramatic irony. 

CRASH is not a film whose subject matter and themes are easily dissected.  Instead, it is one that allows us to lose ourselves in its convoluted world, bare witness to all of its characters and their actions, and then think hard and constructively about them.  Not too many films have the sense of prevailing and common-day prevalence that CRASH does.  The film is bathed in cruelty, but it does let us step back and not only reconsider how we feel about the words and actions of its characters, but our own feelings as well.  CRASH painfully details the nasty cause and effect relationship of racism, but I think it has the influence to instill in its audience a chance to reflect on who we are and how we treat other people, hopefully for the better.  I am not saying that seeing CRASH will make us try to behave better, but maybe it’ll afford us all the opportunity to think more about what we want to say before we say it.  There has rarely been a film as challenging and emotionally taxing as CRASH, which emerges as an important morality play that challenges more than it preaches and characterizes a philosophy that no one is immune to hatred or prejudice, even if you think you are.

  H O M E