Where Crash diverges from all these films, however, is in its head-on appraisal of race, and, within that, the more nebulous divisions of class. Writer-director Paul Haggis and co-writer Bobby Moresco have given the famous melting pot a fierce old stir, and from it drawn a passionately felt, somewhat contrived but highly watchable drama. It took Haggis some years, and the support of above-the-title stars like Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser and Don Cheadle, to get this project off the ground, and while the result isn't quite as incendiary as advance reports have indicated, it is still sufficiently against the Hollywood grain to feel thought-provoking. At the start of the film, a man is asking a gunshop owner what kind of bullets he should buy. "Depends on how much bang you can handle," the owner deadpans. Haggis and Moresco between them handle a fair bit of bang.
They have assembled a very fine cast, headed by Cheadle as a harassed police detective. He's investigating a homicide, the tragic implications of which become clear only at the end. In between, plotlines begin to criss-cross and jostle together black and white, rich and poor, cop and criminal, each of them crashing into the buffers of race prejudice.
It's Christmas in LA, but for two black friends (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges and Larenz Tate) strolling Ventura Boulevard there's not much peace and goodwill in the air. All they see is middle-class white folks casting them suspicious glances, obviously imagining them to be a couple of muggers. Typical lowdown prejudice, you nod piously, and then the film pulls its first surprise - because these two actually are muggers, holding up an affluent white couple and stealing off in their Lincoln Navigator.
The victims of this carjacking turn out to be the Los Angeles district attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his brittle, queen-bitch wife (Bullock). For the DA it's not just a stolen motor, it's a PR nightmare: once the news goes public, he risks losing either the black vote or the law-and-order vote. Meanwhile, out looking for the vehicle, a beat cop (Matt Dillon) pulls over a Lincoln Navigator that he knows is not the stolen one. But its occupants are an affluent black man (Terrence Howard) and his wife (Thandie Newton), so he decides to punish them instead with a gratuitous body search. Dillon seems to be playing a regulation-issue LAPD bigot, a type so notorious even his squad-car partner (Ryan Phillippe) doesn't want to ride with him. And yet the script upsets our assumptions once again, for the racist cop is also a dutiful son whose care of his ailing father has been stymied by an uncooperative health system. What's more, later events will prove that he can also be heroic - a racist cop doesn't have to be only a racist.
With its tense moods and sudden outbursts of violence, the film piles on the oppressive urban blues, yet it is illuminated by streaks of dark comedy. I liked the moment when Fraser's politician, needing some positive publicity, recalls the black fireman he's due to decorate for bravery. But it turns out he's not black, he's Iraqi - and his name is Saddam. Difficult to parlay that one into a photo-op.
Certain scenes carry such a sharp edge they seem to escalate from misunderstanding to confrontation without anything in between. When the black couple get home from their public humiliation, the wife berates the husband not just for being unmanly but for kowtowing, Uncle Tom-style: "Closest you ever came to being black was watching The Cosby Show," she spits, and we sense an argument that's been brewing their whole married life suddenly boil over. The film moves through a heat-shimmer of rage, the kind of rage that prompts people to say things they'd previously bitten back. It's exhilarating to watch, though quite dismaying to remember.
There are unconvincing passages, most of them concerning an Iranian shopkeeper who can't keep a lid on his id: he believes everyone he deals with is out to cheat him, and the way his paranoid fury goes from nought to 60 in about three seconds would test the patience of a saint, let alone an Angeleno. His gripe with a locksmith whose work he blames for a break-in is unreasonable enough; to hunt him down with a handgun is verging on farce. I also got mightily fed up with the overwrought choral score, a favourite among so many movies these days; the wailing female voice is intended to raise a Lament for a Fallen Age, but it's really the sound of a music composer (Mark Isham) trying too hard.
Crash deserves a look, though, and not only for a handful of terrific performances: Cheadle in particular does wonderfully understated work. Along with Spike Lee's better efforts (Do The Right Thing), it dares to put painful truths about race relations centre-stage, and expresses them in a terse, provocative language that feels grimly authentic. Instead of heartwarming messages about forgiveness, it honours ambiguity and brings us close, closer than is comfortable, in fact, to what Americans today are really thinking about one another.
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