Crash (15)

We've really got to stop meeting like this
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Not to be confused with David Cronenberg's film of the same name, Crash is the directing debut of Paul Haggis, who wrote Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby. That script may not have been the subtlest, but it gained rich nuance from Eastwood's taciturn discretion on both sides of the camera. Lacking such reserve, Crash gives us a single-minded rhetorical bashing.

Haggis's subject is mutual misunderstanding in general, racial tension in particular: America's different communities are constantly in collision because they won't stop to talk, to question their mutual prejudice. Few sectors of LA life are left unrepresented, or at least unmentioned, in this sprawling ensemble drama, and all are connected by the one theme. Cheadle's partner and lover is a Hispanic woman (Jennifer Esposito) who has to remind him that she's neither white nor Mexican. A District Attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his wife (Sandra Bullock) have their car stolen; Bullock consequently has all her locks replaced, but is convinced that Latino locksmith Daniel (Michael Peña) is a dangerous gang member, whereas he's really the loving father of an angelic little girl.

Daniel also does a job for a harassed shopkeeper (Shaun Toub), sick of being raided by racists who assume his family is Arab, when they're Iranian. And a racist cop (Matt Dillon) rants at a black hospital registrar for denying treatment to his father, who has long been a supporter of the black community. And so on, and so on: to every story a biting irony.

Despite his narrative ingenuity and his way with a slickly-turned line, Haggis can't stop a familiar format from looking off-the-peg: here is another LA daisy chain of threaded lives in the mode of Short Cuts and Magnolia. It's also one of those social-tension movies, usually rewarded at Oscar time, that invite us to furrow our brows for basically decent people flung into irreconcilable conflict (In the Bedroom, House of Sand and Fog). And the car crash, as a trigger for unlikely encounters, was used much more economically in the Mexican film Amores Perros.

What's specific to Crash is its single-mindedness: no scene can pass, barely a line be spoken, without the central thesis being restated. Everything is focused on the topic at hand, everyone is having the very worst day of his or her life. Haggis works up the interconnections into a spurious complexity, in an extended parade of tinderbox situations.

The forced unpredictability, constantly tripping us up on our own assumptions, quickly becomes predictable itself. It's witty at first: two young black men (rapper Chris "Ludacris" Bridges and Larenz Tate) walk through a white neighbourhood, lamenting that people assume they're a threat; then they pull guns anyway and steal a car. But this device soon becomes mechanical. So it's inevitable that the black man criticised by his wife for downplaying his blackness will, in a moment of crisis, compensate by acting out a black stereotype; that the character with the troubled liberal conscience will eventually perform a racially-motivated act of violence; that an apparent bad egg will end the film with a redemptive deed.

Haggis's abuse of ironic coincidence is sometimes farcical. Early on, Matt Dillon's cop victimises a well-heeled black couple (Thandie Newton, Terrence Howard). Later, he rushes to the scene of a crash, and who should be in the car but Newton. She takes one look at Dillon and screams, "Not you! Anybody else!" It's a wonder she doesn't add, "Someone get me the scriptwriter - now!"

Haggis is saved by a cast of impeccable actors who, without exception, put real flesh on their characters. Bridges is winningly tetchy in a piece of adroit casting: a real-life rapper damning hip hop as a tool of oppression. And if there's one surprise, it's Sandra Bullock's sour-mouthed bourgeoise - who'd have expected her to be so good as Mrs Uncongeniality?

As a director, however, Haggis is lousy at cinematic rhetoric. When an innocent is shot, after running into a bank of angelic white light, an organ chord surges: it's like being immersed in a bubble bath of poignancy. And rest assured, there's a female singer-songwriter on hand to accompany the obligatory montage of characters staring contemplatively out of their windows.

If there's anything worse than a film with no point, it's one that's all point and nothing but. At least no one could sue the makers of Crash for misrepresentation: they've chosen a title that perfectly describes its dramatic subtlety.