Monday, August 08, 2005


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, 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.


At 11:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think anyone who has seen and appreciated this film can not help to be bothered by it. Performance wise, it is incredibly refreshing to see a film in which Sandra Bullock can actually show that she does indeed have some acting chops, and is not just "America's Funny Sweetheart". It is also reassuring to see that Ryan Phillippe and Matt Dillion can show the talent that once made them red hot (then in true Hollowwood fashion,(mispelling intentional) quickly ice cold). Nice to know none of them will go to their graves as ultimately "forgettable".

Perfomances aside, this movie is less about rage than it is about the impotence of that rage. It's about what feeling this way can ultimately drive a person think, feel and do.

Society as a whole easily places people into the catergories failing to allow for who we really are. Is there no place in society for the jerk to be a hero? Or for a successful black man in the prime of life and the top of his game, to feel completely powerless to defend his wife's honor at the hand's of a bigotted cops power abuse? Is it so hard to believe a a racist, rich white woman can ultimately come to the realization that despite all she feels make her superior to those less than herself, she has no real human value to those of her own ilk, but instead to someone whom she routinely mistreats and serves her?

Can we not make room for the possibility that we are all walking contridictions? Despite our best attempts to synopsize ourselves and others into labels that neatly sum up who and what we are, that we are NOT what we say and think we are? (Liberal, feminist, conservative, racist, gay, white trash, ghetto, rich bitch, bigot).

These characters are both good and bad, generous yet self serving, courageous and cowardly, selfless yet self-absorbed, at turns bold, but mostly scared. Just like the viewing audience!

Ultimately I think this film bothers people because despite our best formed notions of who and what we are, we can feel the rage and frustration of each of these characters given their circumstances, and comprehend the actions of some of them at the height of their frustration.

We walk around so stupidly afraid of not being "PC" or not stepping on anyones feelings. As far as I'm concerned stereotypes only become sterotypes because they are based in truth. And this film while on the one hand calls a spade a spade, also implies that the we are not just what we present ourselves to be at face value. Instead we are multifaceted individuals so caught up in what concerns us, that we completely disconnect with the humanity around us.

Maybe the movie's wltimate message is that people living in America are so much more (and at times so much less) than the sum of our parts.

Why should this film provide a commentary or provide to seek solutions? We can provide our own deeper commentary, seek to find our own solutions. The fact that it leaves you thinking and discussing is probably it real value and only purpose.

The most troubling aspect of this film to me is that is wasn't more widely released than it was.

While you seem to think that was "too artificial", I walked away thinking it was very real. More real than we want to acknowledge. And I believe, THAT is what really bugs you.

At 2:18 PM, Blogger Feminist Film Critic said...

There's a lot here that has made me think. But I do want to issue one apology: I didn't intend to write that the film was artificial, and I'm sorry if I conveyed this message. Rather, I tried to argue that the script employed artificial narrative devices. The film itself is quite effecting, in part due to the incredibly believable acting and some truly touching scenes.

At 10:37 AM, Blogger Marshall said...

I like your review of Crash, Karen -- but I didn't like Crash for a different sent of reasons . . .

I didn't see the movie until it was in its second run at the Davis, and had been told by Everyone to Go See Crash, you won't Believe It, it's So Good.

Like most movies that are Built-Up So Much, it wasn't all that good or all that shocking and it wasn't all that interesting, really.

I did love the individual performances. Noticed that Tony Danza was able to say "Who's the Boss?" as a line in the script.

And decided that from now on, if I'm to see movies, they need to be close to opening weekend, so that I don't go in with pre-concieved notions and opinions.



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