Paul Haggis’ Crash is a go-to example on Row Three for people when they think of a film that is undeserving and pandering, a film which not only won best picture at the Academy Awards but did so beating out the more likely candidate, Brokeback Mountain. Haggis hate hit a fevered pitch when this film came out, but I was never really a part of that backlash, so I thought I would rewatch the film and see if anything has changed.
Don Cheadle’s disembodied voice elicits one of the underlying themes of the film in the first few moments before the story officially begins. The weightiness of the speech, which is poetic yet bordering on the pretentious, lingers a mere beat before it is effaced by another character. This effacement in a way diffuses the pretense of the speech and allowed me to appreciate it for its stark beauty. What was to follow never really lived up to that same cosmic balance of gravitas/irony though periodically throughout the film there were faint glimpses of the measured sophistication Crash could have been had it gone through a few more rewrites.
It is telling in this respect that Paul Haggis not only directed Crash but co-wrote it, perhaps stifling the story’s latent potentialities had it been made independently. Perhaps if someone else had directed the film that person would have included some marginalia on the script regarding the highly suspicious dependence on coincidence at the core of many of the narrative’s intersections. For as it stands one would have to believe the Los Angeles depicted in this film consisted only of some six city blocks so is the sheer implausibility compounded by the chance appearances of characters in each other’s lives. And unlike the cosmic balance afforded by gravitas/irony in the first scene of the film there are various scenes throughout the film which are so blatantly agenda-ridden in their interests to propel the race relation thematic issues that they forego the basic responsibilities of good drama: the nuanced interrelations of the characters must bring about the topical issues rather than the topical issues bringing about the character interrelations. Scenes particularly dealing with Sandra Bullock’s and Brendan Fraser’s characters are about as transparent in their thematic agendas as the hygiene play in Woody Allen’s Love and Death.
That being said, there is still some very good stuff in Crash to make me suggest people should see this, for although the film does not work as a whole there still remain several narrative strands which maintain a higher level of sophistication in their portrayal of the issues posed. Most notably are the narrative strands which follow the wayward contradictions of Matt Dillon’s cop and Ludacris’ car thief, it is just unfortunate that their two paths do not meet up in the film. The prospect of having Ludacris rather than Thandie Newton at the center of the car crash recovery scene seems like a missed opportunity on the part of Haggis; the confrontation of racism between these two confused men would have been far more profound I think. Also intriguing in this film was the study of race relations between people of the same color, which for me is the real revelation of the film, when it veered away from antagonisms between blacks and whites and looked at how they behave as communities in opposition to an ‘other’.
To put this film in a proper frame of reference I would have to say that this is no Short Cuts but it is better than Magnolia. In fact, had the opening monologue of Magnolia been edited onto the beginning of Crash it could of diffused the ridiculousness of the coincidences with a pervasive irony. I think as a rewatch, Crash was even better than I remembered. What sticks out sharply in reflection are the overt plot points that Haggis hammers home but one forgets the little bits in between, Ludacris’ and Cheadle’s story arcs in particular really work, and if one can suspend disbelief and try not to be turned off by the racial commentary of the film, it is an enjoyable if sometimes guilty pleasure. I would take this earnestness over Soderbergh’s pretenses of legitimacy in Traffic, which left me flat, bored, and unconvinced. At least Crash is foremost a well put together, entertaining film that is worth a second look.