Starring: Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, Thandie Newton, Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser,
Ryan Phillippe, Terrence Howard. Rated R.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia told the interlocking stories of several desperately
unhappy people in Hollywood, struggling to find themselves and, perhaps, some
elusive dose of spiritual calm. That film ended on a magical note, as frogs
fell from the Los Angeles sky in a sort of Biblical cleansing of madness and
sorrow. Paul Haggis’ Crash ends
with a sight almost as rare, snow blanketing the city’s streets while curious
onlookers stare in dumbfounded amusement. It is a cathartic moment after a
long, emotionally draining day for another group of wandering souls.
They are connected, some
by blood, others by coincidence,
but they remain divided by racial politics and their inability to see past
stereotypes. The usual suspects are all present: bigoted cops, inner-city thugs
and image-conscious politicians eager to swing the minority vote with a
calculated photo-op. Then there’s Sandra Bullock in a surprisingly forceful
turn as a desperate housewife embittered by a carjacking; Don Cheadle as an
investigator struggling to rescue his wayward brother; and Terrence Howard (Ray), playing a television director who’s asked to make
sure his actors “talk black.”
Crash is teeming with
characters whose prejudices are so deeply ingrained that they seem almost
instinctive, but rather than present simple caricatures of villains and
victims, Haggis digs below the surface to examine the roots of their hostility.
They walk the streets with boulder-sized chips on their shoulders, always ready
to greet a perceived slight with a stream of profanity. Tempers flare, and guns
are drawn. Crash is a movie that
is fascinated by that anger, where it comes from and how it can be remedied. It
offers no easy answers, just a series of moving images and powerful vignettes.
There is also
sharp-witted dialogue – courtesy of Haggis,
who wrote the script for Best Picture winner Million Dollar Baby – and a strong cast to breathe life into his
colorful, complicated characters. The most compelling performance comes
courtesy of Matt Dillon, who plays Officer Ryan, a vile racist who, in one
repugnant instance, humiliates a black man by fondling his wife during an
unwarranted traffic stop.
In most movies, Ryan would be easily dismissed as a
one-dimensional thug, the racist cop thrown in to illustrate a well-tread truth
about institutionalized bigotry. Not here. Ryan, it turns out, is also a
grieving son desperate to help his ailing father, and when he gets the
bureaucratic runaround from his HMO, his rage is understandable, even poignant;
that it manifests itself in an ugly diatribe is not.
And yet even for Ryan, there is redemption.
So often in Crash, characters are thrust
into impossibly tense,
life-threatening situations that force them to step back and consider the
consequences of their behavior, and when Ryan finds himself amid the wreckage
of a burning car with the same woman he molested, he experiences an awakening
Does it feel contrived? Not really. It is uplifting,
and for all the
ugly realities about racism in America that Crash mirrors so eloquently, its underlying message is one
of hope. It’s a powerful message, to be sure.