On Screen

'Crash': Meet It Head-On

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 6, 2005

THE INFLAMED aftermath of Rodney King and 9/11 seems to sear the nostrils of every Los Angeleno in "Crash," Paul Haggis's white-knuckle hatefest among characters of almost every ideological, cultural or religious stripe: Asians, Latinos, whites, blacks, rich and poor, Muslim and Christian.

In this tense cultropolis, everyone is hair-triggered to explode at the slightest (or most justified) provocation. And many of those potential provocations are caused on the road, behind the wheel. Driving is, after all, a regular mode of existence in the modern world in general and L.A. in particular. Mess with someone's car, or mess with them in their car, and you're asking for apocalypse in miniature.

Maybe, police detective Graham (Don Cheadle) opines, people have so few avenues in which to interact, they semiconsciously seek ways to crash into one another, literally or metaphorically. In essence, Graham's opening statement serves as the Greek chorus to this modern tragifarce, foretelling the unrelenting fender-bendering we're about to experience.

Graham is on his way to investigate a car accident that will have enormous personal ramifications for him. He's also having an affair with his Latino partner (Jennifer Esposito) and tending to a mother who's addicted to crack.

Two African American kids, Anthony (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) and Peter (Larenz Tate), carjack an SUV from district attorney Rick (Brendan Fraser) and his bigoted wife, Jean (Sandra Bullock). The incident only fuels Jean's inflexible view of non-Caucasians, and Rick is thrown into a political quandary. Should he issue a tough statement about this, for the law-and-order vote? Or should he play down the incident and not incite some of his minority constituency? Meanwhile, Jean becomes convinced that Daniel (Michael Pena), the Latino locksmith changing her locks, is going to sell a spare key to gangland robbers.

Daniel happens to be sent to replace the lock of an Iranian American shopkeeper named Farhad (Shaun Toub), who wants to protect his store from bigots and robberies. When Daniel tells Farhad he needs to replace his door as well as the lock, the Iranian believes Daniel is cheating him or creating business for some friend. Farhad has just bought a gun, too, which makes his anger a much more dangerous commodity.

Hanson (Ryan Phillippe), a rookie cop, realizes his senior partner, Ryan (Matt Dillon), is a toxic racist when he watches Ryan stop a well-to-do African American couple (Thandie Newton and Terrence Howard) merely to sexually humiliate them.

In a movie like this, we know these various plots are part of a massive simmering that will boil over, scorching almost everyone. Actions based on fear, ignorance and resentment will beget equally dismaying reactions, which can only lead to worse. And people will learn increasingly terrible things about themselves.

"Wait until you've been on the job a few more years," Ryan ominously tells Hanson, after the latter has put in for a new partner. "You think you know who you are. You have no idea."

If "Crash" only showed the dark side of humanity, it would barely be worth the viewing. The movie has its funny moments, its terrifying moments, its tragedies, moments of inspiration and depressing ugliness. It's about the worst in people but also the best. As soon as we think we have some characters' number they turn around and do something quite astonishing. We're all so hopelessly human, and writer-director Haggis, who wrote the screenplay for "Million Dollar Baby," gives this truism a deeply lyrical dimension.

Although the movie's fate-binds-us-all scheme (an integral component of these multilayered, multi-character dramas from "Nashville" to "Magnolia") may strike some as manipulated coincidence, the big picture, the passing truths and the overall suspense are too omnisciently compelling for any of that to matter. Haggis's drama is about much more than interlocking front-end collisions. It's about the way we learn, often badly, about one another and how it may take a bad confrontation to peel away the misperceptions. Life's an exhilarating and often dangerous ride, and its accidents can yield good and bad things. Anticipation of the bad keeps us watching "Crash," to be sure, but so does hope of the good.

CRASH (R, 100 minutes) -- Contains sexual scenes, obscenity and violence. Area theaters.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company