20 Mar

Road kill

Paul Haggis gives America the Crash test


Written and directed by Paul Haggis. With Matt Dillon, Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Terrence Howard, Thandie Newton, Brendan Fraser, Ludacris, Larenz Tate, and Michael Pena. A Lions Gate Films release (107 minutes). At the Boston Common, the Fenway, the Fresh Pond, and the Circle/Chestnut Hill and in the suburbs.

YOU THINK YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE, but it turns out you have no idea.

In Sidney Lumet’s unheralded 1990 police drama Q&A, Nick Nolte delivers a blistering portrait of hate as a racist cop who struts through a New York City precinct with Machiavellian bravado, roasting minorities with racial epithets. No one dares touch him, not the higher-ups or his peers. The film may be about dirty cops and corruption, but underneath it all, Lumet lets us know that tribalism is alive and well in the urban jungles of contemporary society.

In Crash, Matt Dillon plays a similar character roaming an equally stark landscape, yet writer/director Paul Haggis, who sailed to the top of Hollywood’s It list after penning Million Dollar Baby, isn’t concerned with departmental politics. Instead, he slices into the racism and the elitism that are rife in America today.

Ambitious in scope and conceit, Crashfinds itself in good company. Like Short CutsGoGrand Canyon, and Magnolia, it unfolds in a series of vignettes where disparate lives slide and bounce off each other with such friction that the occasional collision sends them spiraling outward in dramatic turns. But whereas the intersections in those films feel arbitrary (as life is), every thread in Crash leads to another — every consequence has consequences. Haggis turns the highway-connected cityscape of Los Angeles into a social chessboard where the pieces of different color and rank arrive at an endgame of profound implications.

The pawns make the opening moves in the neon-streaked night, most fatefully Officer Ryan (Dillon) when he pulls over a luxury SUV driven by well-dressed African-American couple Cameron and Christine (Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton). They’re not the carjackers who are being sought in a high-profile dragnet (a similar-make SUV was taken earlier at gunpoint from the DA and his wife), but Ryan, incensed by their color, their stature, and Christine’s acrid rejection of his authority, humiliates them by frisking her and groping between her thighs as Cameron stands by emasculated and hapless. In the aftermath, the couple’s marriage breaks down, Ryan’s wet-behind-the-ears partner, Officer Hanson (Ryan Phillippe), raises the flag to no avail and goes to embarrassing extremes to seek reassignment (he claims uncontrollable flatulence and says he needs a solo gig), and, later, Ryan happens on Christine in an overturned car about to burst into flames. It’s the film’s most harrowing scene, but not the most telling.

The ripples from Ryan’s transgression spread far and wide over the film’s 48-hour span, snaring image-hawking DA Rick (a snooty Brendan Fraser), his brass bitch of a lily-white wife, Jean (Sandra Bullock), the real carjackers (rapper Ludacris, in a breakthrough performance, and Larenz Tate), the Latino locksmith under suspicion because of his gang-banger tattoos (Michael Peña), an Iranian shopkeeper with a chip on his shoulder (Shaun Toub), and Graham (Don Cheadle), the by-the-book homicide detective bearing the shame of his family’s indigence. Under duress, many of them flare up in racial rage, a few bear the visible scars of racism, and all get a shot at redemption but not all take it. Even Ryan, who’s saddled with an ailing father at the mercy of a bureaucratic medical administrator who happens to be black, has moments of depth and vulnerability.

By its end, Crash has produced a cavalcade of wrecks, from twisted metal and torn flesh to broken souls. There’s even a homicide, and the N-word gets batted about with increasing celerity, but for all its candor and spare grit, the film is more than just in-your-face pedagogy about intolerance. There are some introspective moments of clarity as characters (notably Jean) wrestle with their bigotry and discover the common bond of humanity on the other side. There’s no grand solution hanging on the screen when the lights come up, though you’ll be uncomfortably aware of your color and your social status as you head toward the exit. At one point, Ryan says, “You think you know who you are; you have no idea.” It’s a challenge leveled at his scrutinizing partner — and, in a different light, Haggis’s challenge to us all.Issue Date: May 6 – 12, 2005

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