Predictably worthy ensemble drama in the PT Anderson mode. Good, but not great.
When your poor, numb backside suffers innumerable atrocities each week at the hands of film-makers seemingly intent on crippling your lower spine through a combination of complete boredom and dodgy cinema seating (The Island, The Devil's Rejects; yeah, we're talking about you) you look forward to the occasional success story that offers a talented cast, a compelling story line, some heart-rending drama and the occasional shock or two. PT Anderson movies for example and, to an extent, Steven Soderbergh when he was still making classics like Traffic. It was with this kind of expectation that I approached Crash; a movie that has been snowballing with considerable momentum through the plaudits of seemingly every reviewer on the planet, it's belated appearance on our fair UK shores an eagerly anticipated event indeed considering the recent output we've suffered (and I do mean suffered) thanks to Tinseltown.
Penned by Million Dollar Baby scribe Paul Haggis and representing his debut as director, Crash starts off well enough with, unsurprisingly, a minor car crash that introduces Detective Graham Waters (the always awesome Don Cheadle) and his partner (in work and play) Ria (Jennifer Esposito) at the scene of a murder. From here we are whisked off to meet District Attorney Richard Cabot (Brendan Fraser) and his bitchy wife Jean (Sandra Bullock) being car jacked by literate young African American duo Peter (Larenz Tate) and Anthony (Ludacris), the former being the wayward younger brother of Detective Waters. Also up for some serious thesping are Officer Hanson (Ryan Phillippe) and Sergeant Ryan (Matt Dillon), the latter of whom takes advantage of a routine traffic stop by molesting a woman named Christine (Thandie Newton) while her TV Director husband Cameron (Terrence Howard) looks helplessly on, afraid of the officer's racial prejudices. Similarly fearful of his surroundings is Persian immigrant shopkeeper Farhad (Shaun Toub) whose daughter Dorri (Bahar Soomekh) fails to keep her father from venting his frustrations at Hispanic locksmith Daniel (Michael Pe?a), with potentially devastating consequences.
As is de rigueur for such things nowadays, each character's story arc intersects with the others in the most unlikely yet dramatically fruitful fashion, used in this case to highlight issues of racial tension and tolerance in the ethnic melting pot that is modern Los Angeles. In terms of characterisation Crash comes across as a kind of Diet Magnolia, while it's style is an equally diluted blend of grainy neo-noir such as Traffic and 21 Grams (though fortunately without that movie's hyperactive time-skipping antics). Haggis clearly knows what he's doing in playing the magpie, and, while it may be a little too obvious as to who his influences are at times (the emotional "coming together" of many of the principals accompanied by music toward the end could only have been more brazen if the actors had started singing along), if you're going to steal from someone it may as well be from the Andersons and Soderberghs.
Emotionally Crash clearly fancies itself as a bit of a contender, and to be fair it's not far off. If strained relationships are what you're after then pursuing them through issues of race is a pretty safe route to ensuring plentiful dramatic potential. There is a sense of Haggis trying a little too hard to mine the emotional respect of his audience, a fact noted most obviously in the scene where locksmith Daniel assumes his daughter shot dead by an assailant. Affecting for a fleeting moment, Haggis drowns the audience's response to the scene in a little too much dramatic music and slow-mo than is healthy. Ironically, the same characters are responsible for an earlier moment that proves to be perhaps the movie's most touching when Daniel comforts his frightened young daughter at bedtime. It may seem unfair to pick on Haggis for such rookie mistakes, but if he's aiming to be a peer to the afore-mentioned directors he'll need to pull his socks up and stop looking to purposefully create powerful Platoon-style marketing images.
There's no such problem with the cast though, and Crash can easily proclaim itself one of the year's most accomplished acting achievements. There's not a single weak link to be found among principals and supporting actors alike, and the movie succeeds largely on the achievements of it's players who do a fine job of highlighting both the tragedy and the humour of human nature. For all Haggis tries to pull at the heart strings, there are several moments of pure and simple truth that first make the audience laugh then secondly sit back and ponder the tragedy of the reason why, such as Brendan Fraser's DA panicking over the prospect of prosecuting two black men for the theft of his car. "I'm either gonna lose the black vote or I'm gonna lose the law and order vote," he frets. "What we need is a picture of me pinning a medal on a black man." Funny, yes. Fundamentally telling of the world in which we now live? Most definitely, and it's in this respect that the movie excels the most.
As excellent a cast as it boasts, Crash is ultimately the victim of it's own ambition. I can only presume Haggis intended his movie as a precipitator for discussion, as there's no clear resolution to any of the numerous plot strands. Given the subject matter he is perhaps to be applauded for attempting such a weighty piece of ambiguous drama, but an audience can only be expected to enjoy such a thing if they feel involved enough by characters and story. Unfortunately, Daniel aside, almost all of the characters are too frank to be endearing in any way, shape or form, and without any obvious direction to proceedings your average audience is probably going to want to know what the point of it all was. That's how we felt, which is not to say our opinion is the be all and end all, but we're willing to bet that as three average guys there are probably a lot of people out there who are going to feel the same. It's easy to appreciate the potential here, and I have no doubt Haggis will go from strength to strength in movies to come, but then we don't mark on potential, do we? We mark on fact, and in this case I'm not sure what all the 4-star fuss is about.
I award this movie 3 out of 5 Units We Use
Don Cheadle (Det. Graham Waters)
Matt Dillon (Sgt. Ryan)
Jennifer Esposito (Ria)
William Fichtner (Jake Flanagan)
Brendan Fraser (Dist. Atty. Rchard Cabot)
Terrence Howard (Cameron)
Thandie Newton (Christine)
Larenz Tate (Peter Waters)
Ryan Phillippe (Officer Hanson)
Michael Pe?a (Daniel)