Monday 28 July 2014

Movie Review: Crash (2004)

An ensemble multi-story drama about race relations in Los Angeles, Crash sizzles first with the tension generated by fear, and then the warmth of the irrevocable interdependencies required for a complex society to function.

The film consists of several loosely connected stories. Detective Graham Waters (Don Cheadle) and his partner Ria (Jennifer Esposito) are involved in a car crash as they arrive at a crime scene by the side of the highway, where a dead body has been discovered. Events from the previous 24 hours are then recounted, including:
  • Persian shop owner Farhad (Shaun Toub) insists on buying a handgun to protect his store from break-ins, despite the protestations of his daughter Dorri (Bahar Soomekh). 
  • District Attorney Rick Cabot (Brendan Fraser) and his wife Jean (Sandra Bullock) are victims of a carjacking, perpetrated by black hoodlums Anthony (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) and Peter (Larenz Tate). 
  • Police officer John Ryan (Matt Dillon) is resentful of blacks, and takes an opportunity to pull-over and humiliate a successful black couple, television director Cameron (Terrence Howard) and his wife Christine (Thandie Newton). 
  • Ryan's partner Officer Tom Hansen (Ryan Phillippe) is horrified by Ryan's behaviour and demands a different partner, while Christine is furious with Cameron's inaction in the face of Ryan molesting her.
  • Meanwhile, Ryan is trying to care for his ailing father, but finds his health insurance provider agent Shaniqua (Loretta Devine) difficult to deal with.
  • Hispanic locksmith Daniel Ruiz (Michael Peña) re-keys the Cabot's household, and replaces the lock on the store of Farhad's door. Jean suspects Daniel of being a gang member, while Farhad is furious when Daniel informs him that the ill-fitting door, not the lock, is the security problem. Daniel's young daughter is afraid of stray bullets, and he comforts her by placing an invisible magical cloak around her shoulders.
  • Waters and Ria start to investigate a shooting in which a white police detective killed a black detective, seemingly in self defence. Waters also tries to take care of his mother, a helpless abuser of hard drugs. In her brief lucid moments, she insists that he find his brother, who is in trouble with the law.
As the hours tick back towards that dead body by the side of the highway, the lives of these characters intertwine, collide, and veer off again in different and unexpected directions.

A brilliant exploration of the human propensity to first mistrust and then learn through the pain of mistakes, Crash is a magnetic achievement. Directed, co-written and co-produced by Paul Haggis, The film unfolds as a low key series of unfortunate events, all revolving around overt or covert clashes between people of difference races. In a Los Angeles filled with desperate people looking for evidence of the American dream or just trying to survive its wreckage, skin colour is an immediate reason for knee-jerk hostility and either passive or naked aggression.

Racism's ugly face appears in different disguises. Police officer John Ryan and street thug Anthony harbour resentments as a result of deep-seated convictions and personal experience. Poor shop owner Farhad and rich housewife Jean both turn on locksmith Daniel due to ignorance and superficial stereotypes. And in other cases, racist actions are triggered for all the wrong reasons. In complaining about Ryan, officer Tom Hansen gets no relief from the black police chief who refuses to rock the boat against a white officer. And Waters has to face a twisted inquiry into a trigger-happy white detective with an apparent vendetta against black cops, where the facts about his latest black victim may matter less than the need to mop up the mess as conveniently as possible.

Crash emerges as a masterpiece rather than a message movie by delving into the intricate, interdependent wiring that holds a society together, despite the worst of human intentions. Before the 24 hours are out, all the key characters will experience how much they depend on others of a different colour to simply function, for better or for worse and whether they want to or not.

Some of the dependencies are blatant and spectacular, such as Ryan and Christine meeting again at a crash site. Others, as in Jean and her Hispanic housekeeper, are more subtle, relationships that sustain the soul through sheer presence and loyalty. And when the altruistic police officer Tom Hansen finds himself in the same car with the happy go lucky criminal Peter, they face a most unlikely outcome, far removed from their best intentions.

Most of the mini-stories featured in the film end with open questions and unresolved issues, Haggis resisting any pressure to tidy up the narrative with pat conclusions. Crash is an observer of jarring human encounters between strangers, and after the angry release of energy, the flying pieces can land anywhere.

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