Produced by Bull’s Eye Entertainment
Directed by Paul Haggis
Screenplay by Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco
Distributed by Lions Gate Films
Last month, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held its 78th annual awards ceremony. Dreamt up by Louis B. Mayer in 1927, the Academy’s advertised mission was to confer legitimacy on an industry widely belittled at the time for the vulgar sensationalism of its entertainments. It was also tasked with cleaning up films before would-be censors forced the issue. One wonders what Mayer would think, had he lived to see his Academy give this year’s Best Song Oscar to “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” the charming ditty from Hustle and Flow? Of course, he wouldn’t really be in a position to complain. Despite pretensions, pimping has been the Academy’s real mission from the first. The Oscar remains an infallible box-office lure, attracting untold millions to films of dubious value.
Everyone knows the Academy Awards ceremony is an exercise in huckstering. In spite of itself, however, the Academy sometimes gets things right, as this year’s Best Picture Award proves. The Academy justifiably honored Crash, a small independent film that had the temerity to tell the truth about class and race in today’s America and did so with a thoroughly cheeky mix of wit and poignancy. When I reviewed the film last July, I had only one reservation: I thought it exceedingly clever but emotionally thin. I no longer think this.
Spurred by its Oscar win and its theatrical rerelease, I decided to give Crash another look. Watching it again, I realized it cuts much deeper than I had originally supposed.
The movie works like an ever-turning kaleidoscope. It keeps shaking the shards of our ethnic, racial, and economic differences into changing patterns, inflected variously with rage, comedy, recrimination, horror, and, improbably enough, redemption. To do this, director Paul Haggis and his co-screenwriter, Bobby Maresco, put 12 principal characters of various class, ethnic, and racial identities in motion—people who would rarely, if ever, have any personal dealings with one another. Haggis then sees to it that they crash into one another’s lives through a series of deliberately improbable but progressively illuminating coincidences. Don Cheadle, playing an L.A. detective named Graham, introduces this premise just after his unmarked car is rear-ended on the highway, momentarily stunning him and his partner, Ria (Jennifer Esposito). As he regains his senses, he remarks on the possible sociological significance of the accident. “In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass.” This observation leads him to consider the consequences of such insularity. “I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.” Ria looks at him with misgiving, clearly worried about his mental state. “You’ve lost your frame of reference,” she tells him, trying to bring him back to reality. But the film argues otherwise: It’s our standard frame of reference that is delusional, not Graham. This is made clear a moment later, when Ria gets out of the car to talk to the Chinese woman who ran into them and finds out what she has been missing in the way of personal touch. Although she could hardly be unaware that Hispanics are not uniformly welcome in Los Angeles, she is visibly startled to hear the Asian lady loudly scorn the driving habits of Mexicans, in general, and hers, in particular. “Mexicans no know how to drive. You blake too fast,” the lady from Shanghai shouts at her. Recovering her poise, Ria frostily observes that she “blakes” when cars ahead of her stop and that perhaps Ms. Shanghai might do likewise if she could only see above the dashboard. Soon the two women forsake subtle sarcasm and begin hurling demure eff-yous at one another. The scene is richly comic and delightfully disconcerting. I haven’t heard an Oriental say “blake” on screen since Charlie Chan’s Number One son smashed up the patriarchal Plymouth.
Crash figuratively stages a series of such collisions. Each time they occur, the soundtrack crackles with insults that occasionally escalate to physical assaults. Anthony (Chris Bridges) and Peter (Larenz Tate), two mindless thug wannabes, prowl a tony Los Angeles shopping district for car-jacking opportunities and manage to heist the district attorney’s mammoth Lincoln Navigator. In the aftermath, the D.A. (Brendan Fraser) worries he’ll lose the black vote. He decides there is only one way to make amends for becoming a victim of black crime: He orders his black chief of staff to find a black person on whom he can pin a medal with the television cameras whirring. Meanwhile, police officer Ryan (Matt Dillon) uses the carjacking as an excuse to stop a different Lincoln Navigator, this one driven by an upscale black couple. He can’t resist the opportunity to indulge in a little racial humiliation. Once he has the couple out of the car, he lingeringly explores the woman’s body for hidden weapons while her husband looks on hopelessly. Back at the district attorney’s home, Daniel (Michael Peña), a Mexican locksmith, is replacing the locks in case the carjackers decide to pay a visit after their joyride. The D.A.’s wife (Sandra Bullock) takes one look at Daniel’s tattoos and unravels. She is sure that he is a “gangbanger” and that he will pass on copies of the keys to his Hispanic “homies,” a surmise she makes loudly in his presence, to Daniel’s helpless chagrin. Later, Daniel runs afoul of Farhad (Shaun Toub), an armed Iranian shopkeeper who harbors the same suspicion. Farhad believes Daniel set him up for a break-in. Elsewhere, a white cop shoots a black cop dead. Although there is ample evidence that the shooting was justifiable, the cop soon finds himself being sacrificed to the political needs of the district attorney: Rather then pin a medal on a black, he’ll pin a murder on a white. To make it a slam dunk, he extorts reluctant assistance from Graham, using racial intimidation to get his way.
Stupid and vicious as their behavior often is, these characters can be oddly perceptive and compassionate at other moments. Take Anthony, for the most unlikely instance. He’s a paranoid junior gangster who figures he has the right to steal cars so he will not have to ride city buses. Buses, he reasons, have been designed with huge windows to expose their mostly black passengers to white ridicule. Demented? No doubt. But he is capable of more cogent analysis. When Peter listens to rap music in the stolen Lincoln, Anthony condemns the genre as just another example of black enslavement. “It’s just black people demeaning other black people, using [‘nigger’] over and over. You ever hear white people callin’ each other ‘honky’ all the time?” By the end of the film, he will put his anger to more constructive use when he comes upon some contemporary slaves of another race. Dimly recognizing the ironic parallel with his ancestry, he frees them at considerable expense to himself.
The seemingly irredeemable Officer Ryan is another turnabout. When he happens upon an overturned jeep burning on the highway, he leaps to rescue its driver, only to discover that she is the black woman he groped the night before. Here and elsewhere, Haggis deploys a logic of coincidence that oddly does not seem strained because it is so thematically resonant. The woman in question despises Ryan and thinks him representative of whites generally. Her rescue forces her to think again. Men like Ryan who wouldn’t dream of inviting blacks into their homes are routinely willing to risk their lives for them, when the need arises. Haggis wants these moral dichotomies to hit both characters full force. The expressions on the actors’ faces tell us that the rescue will change them utterly. Both have disturbed each other’s prejudices irrevocably.
What struck me most in my second viewing was the film’s hopeful Christian imagery. Events take place against a backdrop of Christmas decorations, especially crèches. They are everywhere—in stores, private homes, and, in one particularly confrontational scene, painted on a suburban garage door. The Christ Child seems omnipresent. He also puts in some key appearances with Saint Christopher. When Peter hops into the SUV, he slaps a plastic statuette of Saint Christopher carrying the Christ Child on the dashboard, explaining to the irascible Anthony that it will protect their getaway. I had thought the purpose of this background imagery was to serve as an ironic counterpoint to the deeply unchristian behavior in the narrative’s foreground. I still think this, but it has another and, I now realize, more important purpose. The Infant Christ occasions what could be said to be an appeal to everyone’s ideal nature. Time and again, otherwise world-weary, soul-hardened characters show themselves capable of love and self-sacrifice when family and children are at stake. Ryan, for instance, devotes himself tirelessly to his aging father, who is suffering from prostate cancer. The Iranian shopkeeper’s daughter does whatever she can to defend her father from his own hotheaded inclinations. Graham’s drug-addicted mother never stops trying to enlist his aid in a search for his errant younger brother. Of all these family relations, the locksmith’s devotion to his five-year-old daughter is the most compelling. She has been traumatized by a bullet having been shot through her bedroom window one night. To allay her fears, Daniel tells her he has a magic invisible cloak that will protect her, which he takes off his own shoulders in delicate pantomime and wraps around hers. The girl at first exhibits skepticism as she enters into this playful fantasy, but her father’s playacting is so sincere that she embraces the story of how a fairy had given him the cloak long ago. It is a very touching moment, but, more than this, it indicates how she has saved him. His love for her has prevented him from becoming the criminal the D.A.’s wife automatically assumed him to be. Furthermore, it sets up what will become one of this episodic film’s most important climaxes. Without divulging anything, it is enough to say that the moment connects with Saint Christopher—whose name means “Christ-bearer.” As the story goes, the saint had dedicated his life to helping travelers ford a particularly turbulent stream. One day, a small child asked to be carried across. Christopher readily complied but then found the child becoming impossibly heavy. When he expressed his surprise, the child revealed himself to be Christ, explaining that His weight was the burden of sin that He carried. This image of a strong man saving a child and being saved by the child, in turn, opens and closes the narrative and ripples through all its events as something more than ironic counterpoint. The film clearly wants us to reflect on the capacity for devotion and sacrifice that resides in all of our hearts, even the most bitter and cynical. What would happen, the film asks, if we all devoted ourselves to being Christ-bearers, ready to carry not just our family and friends through troubled waters but also everyone else who is in need?
After seeing Crash the first time, I left the theater feeling elated but not entirely sure why. Now I know. Crash lifts our spirits because it never flinches from exhibiting the ugliness of which we are capable, yet it never fails to remind us of the redemption that awaits those who rise to the challenge of rescuing one another.
Having praised Crash to this degree, I must now register one reservation. Like so many movies today, this one has its de rigueur nude sex scene. Though very brief and not wholly gratuitous, it is there, and it is annoying—especially because I would like to recommend this film to adolescents. Yes, I know only too well that every adolescent in America is acquainted with such images, but I would rather not support the trend.