Hollywood seems more comfortable with psychopaths dressed in leather and underage slut bombs than issues of race. After all, they don't want to risk the bottom line by making audiences uncomfortable. Give it the patronizing pat on the head and have the issue overcome in just under 90 minutes with Julie Andrews winking at the Negro children before flying out of a technicoloured ghetto; coloured folk restored to their proper place. So amongst the superheroes and television nostalgia of the summer, Paul Haggis brings us one of the most searing portraits of racism on the silver screen in recent memory with his directorial debut Crash.
Haggis, the writer of Oscar winner Million Dollar Baby co-writes and directs the intersecting narratives of a dozen characters and the racial tensions repelling them within the confines of Los Angeles. Crash begins with a monologue by Don Cheadle's character in the aftermath of a fender-bender, "We're always behind this metal and glass," he murmurs. "And we miss the sense of touch so much that we crash into each other."
Not that the film is as ponderous or pretentious as the quote makes it out to be. With the precision and verve shared by Robert Altman's Nashville and P.T. Anderson's Magnolia, Haggis manages to weave the sprawling threads of his characters and ties them together in a tidy package. Coincidences are bountiful, Haggis revelling a bit too much in the cleverness of his plot points.
For all the heavy handed manipulation of the plot, Crash's characters retain their messy humanity. One-dimensional stereotypes like Matt Dillon's racist cop or Terrence Howard's black TV producer become fully realized as their motivations and secret histories become apparent. Everyone, from Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda) and Jennifer Esposito (Breakin' All the Rules) to the surprisingly good Ludacris (the Fast and the Furious) and Brendan Fraser (George of the Jungle), play their parts with finesse rarely seen in an ensemble this large. Matt Dillon, especially, uses his trademark smirk as a front for his rage, unleashed on the minorities around him. The only cast member to veer off course is Sandra Bullock, though probably more the fault of the patronizing character she plays--one of the rare missteps in Haggis' screenplay.
Still, a torrent of dark humour undercuts any sense of manipulation the missteps bring. The off coloured racial epithets characters hurl at one another are often as funny as they are offensive and the ironies which the characters obliviously find themselves in counter any wisps of sentimentality you'd expect in a film about racism; particularly the "triumphant" conclusion to Ludacris' vignette--you'll know it when you see it. At times, though, Haggis can't resist the maudlin with the odd over-the-top use of slow motion or an overpowering musical theme. A scene cutting through the very real drama of the characters is put off by the whimpering of Bullock's character as she falls down the stairs while other characters deal with ill fathers and rape.
Crash does not have all the answers. Haggis doesn't bother to give us clear answers or a summary of racial conflict in modern North American society. He presents his characters, their follies and biases, and forces us to come to our own conclusions. Even before the dearth of explosions and titties of summer cinema, you won't find a movie as intelligent or as well made as Crash.