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Crash’ is a course in stunning cinema

Observer Scene | Friday, September 9, 2005

Brian: Every once in a while there is a film destined to be a sleeper classic, like “Memento” or “The Usual Suspects.” These films often come from talented directors who have made an impression and are on the verge of fulfilling their potential. Paul Haggis, who wrote last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner “Million Dollar Baby,” is such a director.

In “Crash,” his directorial debut, he has made a film that is not only an incisive portrait of racial tensions, but the best American film of the year so far.

Haggis has proven himself a great screenwriter, but the directorial panache on display in “Crash” is still a little startling. He juggles intertwining storylines and balances a talented ensemble cast perfectly, almost out-mastering the master, Robert Altman. Like that director’s 1993 film “Short Cuts,” “Crash” follows the seemingly unrelated but ultimately intersecting lives of various Los Angeles residents. The differences in the attitudes and backgrounds of the characters are immediately evident, ranging from poor black ghetto residents to a rich white district attorney. Race, gender and economic disparity all play major roles as the characters develop over the course of the film.

There are some dazzlingly effective moments in “Crash,” particularly a mid-film car crash and the scene that appears on the movie poster. Haggis’ pacing and control is excellent, especially for a first-time director. Additionally, his sense of drama (in some cases, melodrama) and character interaction is pointedly effective. The film’s sense of build-up and pay-off is unparalleled in its logic and execution, and each situation resolves itself in ways that are often unexpected, but somehow perfectly right.

Additionally, Haggis’ ear for dialogue is perfect. All of the characters have distinct voices and personalities, and none are played for type, not even the fast-talking African-American carjacker (rapper Luducris, who is surprisingly talented) nor the corrupt, racist police officer (Matt Dillon, in the best performance of his career). Each of them have reasons for acting the way they do, and while those reasons may not be entirely justified, neither can they be simply dismissed.

“Crash” is alive in ways that few movies can be. Though the subject matter and its presentation is often quite harsh, it’s not as darkly depressing as “Million Dollar Baby,” which is actually one its strongest facets. Most of the characters arrive at an epiphany of some sort before the film’s conclusion, and the film ends on a hopeful note. “Crash” is not as directly didactic as might be expected, but Haggis’ message is clear: If these characters, with all their hate and prejudice, can learn to change, why can’t we?

Molly: Los Angeles is a city of contrasts. It is at the same time vastly wealthy and the center of extreme poverty, naturally beautiful and a concrete jungle and a place where dreams come to be fulfilled or to be painfully extinguished. The movie “Crash” manages not only to reveal the binary opposites that give Los Angeles its character, but also uses the city and its troubles to make a greater commentary about the society in which we live.

“Crash” focuses on racial prejudices, but not the simple and stereotypical conflicts that one would expect. Tension between African-American, Caucasian, Hispanic, Arabic, Asian and other racial groups is intermingled with the idea of how class changes all of these identities. Racial issues can easily be made into simplistic, two-sided debates, but “Crash” refuses to give into stereotypes or expected endings.

The film uses cars and car accidents as symbols of the sudden violence with which racial issues can erupt. In a multi-cultural place like LA, racial tensions seethe beneath the surface of the city and it just takes one quick impact to cause huge dramas to arise.

Cars in Los Angeles are much more than just a means of transportation. They are a symbol of class, status and self. A car superficially represents the people who drive it, and thus stealing a car or crashing it has a great symbolic impact. Thusly, cars are an apt representation of the city and the shifting torrent of emotions within it.

The extreme irrationality of racism is one of the most important focuses of the film. Jean Cabot (Sandra Bullock) goes on a tirade after her car is stolen by two black men, but she focuses her rage on the Hispanic locksmith who she hires to protect her. An Arabic immigrant, Farhad (Shaun Toub) becomes so distraught after his insurance won’t cover a robbery, he attempts to kill an innocent worker he blames for the event.

Another interesting element is how Americans’ attempts to be politically correct and conceal feelings can lead to greater tension and problems. The sensitive and politically correct Officer Hanson (Ryan Phillipe) requests a new partner after Sgt. Ryan (Matt Dillion) harasses an African-American woman after stopping her for speeding. When it comes down to a final life-or-death choice involving people of other races, though, Sgt. Ryan redeems himself and Officer Hanson commits a horrific act.

The importance of actions over words is a huge part of the film, and it comments on the fact that while words are hurtful, the final actions that we take under pressure reveal our true characters. Anthony (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) constantly discusses how young African-American men are stereotyped by Caucasian society while simultaneously fulfilling such societal prejudices. He feels entitled and blames society for his own actions, but ultimately finds contentment after realizing that some people in society even have it worse than he does.

The differences between people in “Crash” ultimately boil down not only to racial differences but to the same basic human emotions of fear, resentment and loneliness. Race is just a medium through which people express their frustration in their lives, and the film reveals that humans have much more in common with one another than the tensions within society would reveal. Class and attempting to fulfill certain societal expectations are more to blame than race alone.

“Crash” is not a movie to go see to escape reality for a few hours. If anything, the film creates a greater sense of awareness. As the actors and actresses peform masterfully, the movie truly seems to open our eyes not only to the racial tensions that lie at the heart of our American society, but also reveals a great deal about the difficulties of communication and personal interaction in American society. The film can be difficult to watch because parts of it are almost too real and show distinctly unpleasant sides of our own humanity. It is a film, however, that is immensely entertaining, interesting and that will be discussed long after the credits have rolled.