WARNING: This review contains some spoilers!
2005 was a year in which making socially relevant and topical films became a popular trend in Hollywood. Many of these films focused on particular issues, such as the ongoing conflict between the U.S. and the Middle East (Jarhead), corruption within the oil industry (Syriana), sexism in the workplace (North Country), intolerance towards homosexuals (Brokeback Mountain), the psychological inner workings of terrorists (Paradise Now), or political violence in Africa (The Last King of Scotland). There were, however, certain films that stood out from the rest, in part due to their subject matter or moral agendas, but more importantly because of the convictions of the filmmakers who made them.
One such filmmaker is writer/director Paul Haggis, whose film Crash (not to be confused with David Cronenberg's 1996 psychodrama of the same name) was distinctive because it didn't focus on just one singular political or social problem. Instead Haggis' films looks deep into the psyches of American citizens and there it uncovers the seed from which most of the world's problems spring: cultural misunderstanding and racism. Yet Crash is more than a fictional exposé on racism, as it is also examines the inequality of our social class system.
Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco, who had also collaborated together on Million Dollar Baby for director Clint Eastwood, wrote the film's explosive screenplay. In Crash, the two screenwriters create a modern mosaic of pride, prejudice, and presumption set in the culturally diverse and often volatile streets of Los Angeles. Here the story unfolds through a series of connected events, each one leading to an act of redemption or corruption for the flawed characters involved.
The story follows a group of disparate people, all of them prejudiced in some way, as their lives intertwine over the course of 36 hours.
Anthony and Peter are carjackers. Anthony, the more cynical of the two, is constantly protesting the apparent racial discrimination he sees everywhere, though he's completely unaware that he's perpetuating it. Peter, an optimist at heart, often balances Anthony's anti-social behavior, though his cocky attitude tends to get him in trouble. One night they steal a black S.U.V., which it turns out belong to D.A. Rick Cabot and his wife, Jean.
Meanwhile, Detective Graham Waters and Detective Ria, his girlfriend, are put on a murder case, where a white detective named Conklin gunned down a black officer. Conklin has a history of shooting black men and it's suspected that the shootings were racially motivated. But when Graham discovers that the black police officer was crooked and a druggie the case becomes complicated.
When Rick and Jean Cabot return home after the carjacking, Rick becomes preoccupied with trying to handle how the public will react to the carjacking, which he fears that since it was committed by black men will lead cost him the black vote next election. Jean is consumed with paranoia and has the locks changed to their house, but when the locksmith, Daniel Ruiz, shows up and he's Hispanic, she needlessly worries that he's going to sell a copy of the key to gang members. Rick patronizingly dismisses her concerns.
After the carjacking, Officer John Ryan and Officer Tommy Hanson search for the stolen S.U.V.. Officer Ryan is selfish and deeply sexist and racist, though Officer Hanson isn't, which leads to conflict between the two of them. When Officer Ryan sees a black couple driving an S.U.V that matches the description of the one stolen, he pulls them over, even though the license plates of the two vehicles don't match and the drivers look nothing alike. The S.U.V. belongs to a television director named Cameron Thayer. Cameron and his wife, Christine, were coming back from a Hollywood Awards show when they were pulled over and they clearly weren't involved in the carjacking. That makes little difference to Officer Ryan, who is basically just pissed off to see a black couple with a more expensive vehicle than his own, so he pulled them over anyway. Not only does Officer Ryan question them unnecessarily and humiliates them in the process, he also molests Christine by the roadside.
Considering what happened with his partner, Officer Hanson requests that he's reassigned a new senior partner or given his own patrol car. But Police Lieutenant Dixon explains that Officer Ryan has been on the force for 17 years and that if he's such a "racist prick" then how come he's still on the force and wouldn't this reflect poorly on Dixon's "managerial skills" if it was brought to his superiors' attention that Officer Ryan is such a blatant racist and is abusive of his power.
When Farhad's convenience store is broken into, he has his daughter Dorri buy him a handgun. Farhad has Daniel the locksmith come and replace the lock on the door, but when Daniel explains that the door needs to be replaced, Farhad refuses to pay him or hire someone to install a new door. After Farhad's store is broken into again and is vandalized, he decides to get back at Daniel, feeling that he was responsible for the break-in though he wasn't.
During a car crash, Officer Ryan comes to the aid of a woman trapped inside of a car that's caught fire. It turns out to be Christine, the very woman he molested two nights earlier. After he explains that she'll die if he doesn't help her, Christine is forced to trust the man who so grossly violated and humiliated her.
Meanwhile, Anthony and Peter continue carjacking. This time, however, things go really wrong when they try to steal Cameron's S.U.V. (apparently they have a thing for black Lincoln Navigators). Cameron is fed up and he struggles with Peter before driving off with Anthony still inside the vehicle. Because of the erratic driving caused by the struggle inside the S.U.V., they're pulled over by the police, who intend to kill Cameron when he resists arrest. Luckily, Officer Hanson shows up and talks them out of it and insists that they let Cameron go with a warning, albeit a "harsh" one. His temper flaring and his ego injured, Cameron shows no gratitude and leaves without a word of thanks to Officer Hanson.
Graham continues his investigation of Conklin and determines that regardless of whether Conklin's actions were racially motivated that the black police officer was not innocent. Graham has a meeting with Flanagan, the D.A.'s aide, and Flanagan suggests that Graham could be up for a promotion and become the D.A.'s Lead Investigator, thus ensuring that Rick would get the black vote. But Graham would have to testify that Conklin's shooting of the police officer was undoubtedly racially motivated.
Soon all of their separate lives will crash together and some will have compromised themselves, some will have learned the power of sacrifice, some will feel the weight of anguish and regret, but none of them will ever be the same.
The film is elevated by its brilliant cast, which includes, in alphabetical order, Sandra Bullock as Jean Cabot, Don Cheadle as Graham Waters, Tony Danza as Fred, Keith David as Lieutenant Dixon, Loretta Devine as Shaniqua Johnson, Matt Dillon as Officer Ryan, Jennifer Esposito as Ria, William Fichtner as Flanagan, Brendan Fraser as Rick Cabot, Terrence Howard as Cameron, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges as Anthony, Thandie Newton as Christine, Michael Pena as Daniel Ruiz, Ryan Phillipe as Officer Hanson, Bahar Soomekh as Dorri, Larenz Tate as Peter Waters, and Shaun Toub as Farhad.
Sandra Bullock is great playing the cold and judgmental Jean and she gives an electrifying performance that's undoubtedly her best to date.
Don Cheadle is terrific as Graham, a wary and weary detective, who's forced to take care of his ailing mother and watch over his delinquent brother, Peter, at the same time.
Tony Danza isn't given much screen time to flesh out his character as Fred, a television executive determined to depict blacks as being thuggish and ignorant, but his performance is memorable.
Keith David is well suited to play the gruff Police Lieutenant Dixon, who allows racism to thrive in his department because as a black man he feels that he'd lose his job if he spoke out against it.
Loretta Devine is spectacular as the feisty and likeable Shaniqua Johnson, who turns out to be less likeable at the very end of the film.
Matt Dillon plays completely against type as Officer Ryan, an obnoxious, sexually abusive, racist police officer, who justifies his actions as being those of an experienced and jaded cop.
Jennifer Esposito is impressive as Ria, Graham's lover and partner, who is fiercely defensive when Graham calls her a Mexican, but has no qualms with calling a Korean woman Chinese.
William Fichtner plays the abrasive and demeaning Flanagan, who passes his racist ideals off as being socially conscious.
Brendan Fraser gives a surprisingly multi-faceted and subtle performance as Rick Cabot, the troubled D.A. and Jean's husband.
Terrence Howard is impressive as Cameron, who is caught between his pride and doing what's right, both professionally as well as in his marriage.
Chris "Ludacris" Bridges is amazing as Anthony, not only because he's best known as a rapper and not as an actor. Despite my dislike of his music, I have to admit he's great in this film.
Thandie Newton gives a stunning performance as Christine and in particular, her scenes with Matt Dillon are emotionally devastating.
Michael Pena is magnificent as Daniel, an Hispanic family man who is continually accused of being a crook. The scene where he believes his daughter has been shot is one of the most powerful in the entire film.
Ryan Phillipe gives his most complex and believable performance playing the do-gooder cop Officer Hanson, who most certainly doesn't do good when he mistakenly believes that he's about to be carjacked and shoots an unarmed man and then covers up the crime.
Bahar Soomekh is quite good as Dorri, Farhad's daughter, who looks out for her father with both frustration and compassion.
Larenz Tate is effective as Peter Waters, a carjacker and Graham's little ne'er do well brother.
Shaun Toub is stunning as Farhad, who allows his paranoia to affect his judgment.
Crash features an amazing soundtrack that includes artists from all genres, including traditional Welsh folk singing, modern rap, rock, and classical/opera.
The film's haunting, emotional score was composed by veteran film and television composer Mark Isham (A River Runs Through It and Blade), who was once the keyboardist for Van Morrison. The film's multi-cultural score, not only boosts the emotional impact of the film, but also helps to establish on of the film's main themes: that the coming together of different cultures can be harmonious, if we let it.
The film was not without its share of controversy and some felt that its message of acceptance was hypocritical and contrived. Also, a common criticism was that the story was ridiculously convoluted, which it is, but it's meant to be. As far as I'm concerned I did not feel that the film was hypocritical or contrived, as in essence all forms of art that express an ideal or multiple ideals could be considered hypocritical and contrived. For me this is simply not the case. Such art is transcendent in that it shows the passions of the artist (in this case a filmmaker) and displays multiple perspectives.
Crash would become one of the most hyped and lauded films of the year and would win the "Best Picture Award" at the Academy Awards in 2005. Though, this caused some outcries from people who disliked the film, many felt that it was a well-deserved recognition of a great film. I fall into the latter category and I did feel that Crash was a modern masterpiece.
The 2-disc Director's Cut Edition of Crash isn't all that different from the theatrical version, though there are some extended scenes that give viewers a better understanding of the characters and their predicaments. Personally, I don't feel that it matters much as to which version people purchase, though the 2-disc set contains far more special features and only costs slightly more.
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