As one who fidgeted through MillionDollarBabywondering what all the palaver was about, I wasn't expecting much more than ordinary competence from Crash, the directing debut of Clint Eastwood's screenwriter, Paul Haggis. Even during the jumpy opening sequences of this wonderfully skittish riff on a long dark night of the Los Angeles soul, in which members of LA's major ethnic groups hurl invective and more at each other with blithe abandon, I was poised to dismiss what promised to be another in the long line of drearily topical actioners that boil our overexposed city down to the sum of its color lines.
In fact, Crash—which, post-Cronenberg's adaptation of J.G. Ballard's novel, surely deserves a more original title—is not just one of the best Hollywood movies about race, but, along with Collateral, one of the finest portrayals of contemporary Los Angeles life period. Fresh as a daisy, unencumbered by genre and corrosively funny (Haggis co-wrote the vivacious screenplay with Bobby Moresco, who, like so many Hollywood Turks today, comes out of hipster TV), the film appears on casual inspection to be a kind of six degrees of racial separation, whose dominant mood is unbridled fury played for both entertainment and tragedy. It begins as it ends, with the discovery by two cops (played by Don Cheadle and Jennifer Esposito, who are also lovers in the movie) of a man's body sprawled beside a freeway, then jogs back 24 hours to the events that led to his death. Fast and fluidly paced, the movie traffics in a kind of nervous brinkmanship rotated among encounters between Angelenos whose only common bond is that they're trying to rub along in the same geographical space. An Iranian shop owner (Shaun Toub) feuds with his Mexican locksmith (Michael Pea). Two respectably dressed young African-Americans (Larenz Tate, and musician Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, spinning gold from his first acting role) banter their way through the Grove griping about whites stereotyping black men as criminals, then coolly hijack the car of a well-heeled district attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his paranoid wife (Sandra Bullock). A redneck cop with a vile temper (beautifully played by Matt Dillon) openly harasses an affluent black couple (Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton) whom he has caught engaging in the only kind of sex you can have with reasonable safety while driving an SUV. As the night wears on, more fights erupt, and the crucible of threat, paranoia and simmering violence heats up to boiling point.
Haggis has claimed that Crashis less about race than about the frayed nerves and mistrust that shape our public encounters in the wake of the 9/11 disaster. Perhaps, but he was inspired by an incident in which he himself fell victim to a carjacking, and plotwise the film suggests the less sexy but, for my money, far more plausible theory that we are being driven to the brink by traffic, and by the pathological isolation of living in an atomized city where what passes for public life is conducted from one car window (or, in one terrifyingly funny scene, undercarriage) to the next. Haggis caters to no racial pieties, left, right or center. Instead, all his deeply prejudiced characters get their due as individuals struggling to carve decent lives out of chaos. A bad guy cares tenderly for a sick parent; a pillar of the law neglects a troubled sibling; a peaceable but unhinged shopkeeper finds himself toting a gun; a Mexican-American father patiently soothes his little girl, who's freaked by having witnessed a bullet whiz through her bedroom window; a self-involved Brentwood matron learns the hard way that her only true friend is her Latina maid.
Haggis doesn't take prejudice or discrimination lightly, but he does grasp the difference between the two, and the oddly hopeful fact that there will always be a gap between what both liberals and racists say and what they find themselves doing under duress. In Crash, ethnic prejudice is a cover for the communal loneliness and mistrust of strangers that will always cloud the life of a city devoid of benign public spaces for people to meet each other. Warm and worldly-wise, Haggis seems to argue that the situation is hopeless, but not serious. Like his hapless characters, yelling and blustering their way from one crisis to the next, none of us knows what we are capable of until our mettle is tested, and things can go either way. Terrible things happen here, but though Crashbows out with yet another screaming match between two commuters of different ethnic origins, it's far from being a pessimistic work. Indeed, the movie maps out an intriguing urban polity common to all decaying cities, whose vigor comes to depend not on institutions that don't work or don't care, but on individuals rising ad hoc to all manner of occasions, even ones that involve risking their lives for others they claim to despise. In answer to the plaintive Rodney King question that ricocheted all over the city after the 1992 riots, Haggis insists not that we canget along, but that somehow, person by person, no matter how inflammatory the racial rhetoric, we sort of do.
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CRASH WAS DIRECTED BY PAUL HAGGIS; WRITTEN BY HAGGIS AND BOBBY MORESCO; PRODUCED BY CATHY SCHULMAN, DON CHEADLE, BOB YARI, MARK R. HARRIS, MORESCO AND HAGGIS. NOW PLAYING COUNTYWIDE.