'Crash': The Collision Of Human Contradictions

Thandie Newton and Matt Dillon in a riveting study of race and morality.
Thandie Newton and Matt Dillon in a riveting study of race and morality. (By Lorey Sebastian -- Lions Gate Films Via Associated Press)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 6, 2005

"Crash" is like a gambler's guide on how to play the race card. Double down or fold? Bluff, ask for a hit or hold 'em. Ante up, back off, excuse yourself for a run to the john and slip out the window.

It's all here as the first-time director Paul Haggis (promoted to the Big Chair after having written "Million Dollar Baby") views a cross section of Los Angeles from God's point of view and discovers that nothing is ever simple: racism and nobility can exist in the same man, hate and love in the same woman, fear and loyalty, compromise and idealism, all the yin-yang dichotomies that make the human species so utterly confounding, yet so utterly fascinating.

Haggis's device is the event of the title, a front-to-rear fender bender on Mulholland, right at the crest of the Hollywood Hills, that line of demarcation between the dangerous city and the dangerous valley. What has caused her car to crash into his is a police event: A body has been found in the weeds just off the posh road and all the CSI guys are doing their thing. The movie then backtracks 48 hours and begins again, now aiming at the body and the collision on Mulholland and explaining how everyone got there and why.

Thus we have what might be called a random pattern movie. Other examples are Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" and John Herzfeld's "2 Days in the Valley" or even Robert Altman's "Short Cuts." Haggis's deity-like camera wanders indiscriminately over the landscape, listening in to conversations, meeting, following then abandoning characters, and continually showing us what only God can know: how they are all linked by space, time, coincidence and blood, even if they themselves can never know. This, for some odd reason, is extremely satisfying. Briefly we know what He knows and we feel the sadness He must feel.

The film is propelled by one basic equation: It's that personal disappointment (career, sexual, economic, familial, whatever) clings to people until they find a way to vent, and they always seem to do so by venting at the Others. The Others? You know, the different ones, different skins, different cultures, different heritages, different politics, but the eternal, evil Other Guy.

There's some variation in the quality of the characters. Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock play the Los Angeles district attorney and his high-strung wife, victims of a carjacking but also (in his professional life) a politician who must play to the electorate. Somehow this subplot doesn't quite work; Fraser seems callow and young for the part, and the exigencies of the plot demand that he be so busy that we don't get to know him, while it gives her much time to overact a near-nervous breakdown.

But some other stories work brilliantly. Terrence Dashon Howard and Thandie Newton are a prosperous black entertainment industry couple cruising through town in their Lincoln Navigator, when they are stopped by the racist Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon), who is angry that a black HMO executive isn't responding quickly enough to his ill father's dilemma. So he takes it out on the two innocents in an exceedingly nasty way, the camera capturing what may be the most unsettling racist incident in recent movie history. And it seems so simple: They are fabulous, he's vile, end of story.

But it's not the end of the story. The story goes on, and suddenly this hated icon of today's culture, the brutal, racist cop, finds himself in a truly desperate emergency, and risks everything, including his own terrible death by fire, to save an African American motorist from sure death in an auto crash. So you're left with the conundrum: Which is the real Officer Ryan? Which leads to the next logical question: Which one is the real you and which one is the real me?

Meanwhile Ryan's partner, a young white officer played by Ryan Phillippe, feels contaminated by his partner's fury, and steps out of the relationship. Again, he thinks it's so simple. And the next afternoon, he heroically intercedes to prevent the shooting of a man he knows to be innocent. So he has a moment to think that virtue is always rewarded.

Alas, within hours, his own secret reservoir of hate and fear -- secret to him at any rate -- has caused him to shoot and kill an innocent African American man.

Again simple: Hate equals fear equals violence, right? Well, wrong: Instead, as it turns out (and it turns out many times this way) the "innocent" isn't so innocent after all. In fact in this movie, nobody's truly innocent and the other side of the argument is that nobody's truly guilty.

On and on it goes. Don Cheadle is a detective investigating a racially motivated homicide -- a white undercover cop has shot a black undercover cop, neither knowing the other was a policeman -- and the D.A. wants to go the standard white-racism-must-be-punished route, but the investigation reveals yet more complexity. A Persian store owner blames his problems on the Hispanic locksmith who fixed his lock but didn't fix his door and goes out seeking vengeance. A carjacker improbably finds himself the custodian of 10 illegal Thai immigrants.

This is far from a perfect movie. Sometimes Haggis gets a little precious in his manipulations, fitting his jigsaw together a little too fancily. But this is the rare American film really about something, and almost all the performances are riveting. It asks tough questions, and lets its audience struggle with the answers.

Crash (113 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence, language and sexuality.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company