Having seen Paul Haggis' Crash two months ago, I wrote several reviews of the film in my head but never really grasped a sense of what I wanted to say. This movie provoked so much press and praise that I probably entered the theatre with high expectations, always a dangerous thing (think of the backlash against Sideways, a charming film brought down by those whose hopes for the film were built up beyond reasonable levels). Crash offers fantastic performances, challenging material, and well-written dialogue. But still I felt ill at ease and unable to put my finger in what bothered me about the movie.
Crash is a movie that makes you feel, as with the characters it portrays, like you are ready to shoot someone. The film’s tone is taught, tense, and frustrating. It presents a series of inter-connected plots that depend upon incredible coincidences that challenge the suspension of disbelief. Juggling so many storylines is difficult, but the movie seems to employ too weak a thread to connect them all.
More troubling, however, was that I couldn’t figure out what this movie wants to say. The title refers to the automobile accidents that frequently initiate the events of the film. This is a clever device, employing a phenomenon we can all relate to, either personally or through the many news stories that probe the whys and wherefores of road rage. When brought to the breaking point, how do human beings interact? Add race and other inciting factors, and you have the basis for pretty awesome conflict.
Something about the film was too artificial, too planned. The cop who molests an affluent black woman during a routine traffic stop also cares for his aging father. See? He’s a jerk, but he has a good side, too. This same police officer (portrayed by Matt Dillon) also coincidentally has an opportunity to save the same woman’s life later in the film, proving that despite his rage and racism, he can be a hero. While I love the attempt to provide nuance to an otherwise reprehensible character, the script provides too many easy answers, despite Dillon’s moving performance.
The characters operate at a fever pitch. Sandra Bullock’s wealthy wife of a D.A. rails against the minorities that threaten her security, then weeps in the arms of her Hispanic maid. Ryan Phillippe’s sensitive police officer shoots a young black man whom he picks up by the side of the road, intending to be generous and prove his liberal credo but instead finding himself guilty of the same racially based fear as everyone else. The tension runs so high and is so engrossing throughout this movie that I almost overlooked each overdrawn moment and untenable link between storylines. Almost.
So I knew something about the film didn’t seem to work, but since I couldn’t quite articulate why, I avoided writing a review. But today something happened that helped my ideas cohere. On CNN.com, I read about a man who murdered another man with whom he had argued about a traffic incident. The murdered man was in the process of removing his 10-month old baby from the car when the killer shot him four times. The baby was unharmed, but was found covered with her own father’s blood. Sorry to be so gross, but this is a gross story. And it echoes the uncontrollable and inexplicable rage of Crash.
Why do all the characters in Crash feel so much rage? Race plays a large role in the anger espoused throughout the film, yet ultimately it seems the movie uses race as a tool to get at something deeper. Rumor has it that writer/director Paul Haggis intended to create a vision of a post-9/11 world with this film. Don Cheadle’s voiceover introduction to the film describes L.A. as a city where people never touch, so sometimes they “crash into each other just so we can feel something.” And the main tagline for the film, “You think you know who you are. You have no idea,” seems intended to implicate everyone in the audience in the events depicted.
That’s a lot of messages and thematic content. Perhaps my true concern about the movie is simply this: it tries to do too much. Certainly, Haggis has tapped into a vital social debate about rage in our society: something that impacts arguments about terrorism as well.
But I wonder if his examination of rage is irresponsible. As I mentioned above, I left this film feeling tense and angry; I had become a character from the film. But I had no outlet for my feelings. I felt stranded, with little guidance for how to process my emotions and direct them towards something productive.
Is it the filmmaker’s responsibility to provide me with that direction? Or is the value of this film merely in its exposure of how anger and fear continue to operate, and even control, events in our world.
Haggis covers so much ground that he in fact says very little. While I appreciate being invited to enter the fray, the movie seems no different than the CNN article referenced above, providing facts and stimulus without deeper commentary or an attempt to seek solutions.
We can talk about road rage all we want, but ultimately personal responsibility comes to bear. I don’t need a touchy feely ending, but Haggis ends his film with little more than insightful ambiguity. Doesn’t our world need more than this?
Yet the mere fact that I am still thinking about this film two months later acts as a testament to its power and impact. If that doesn’t make a movie worth seeing, then I don’t know what does.