‘Crash’: another thought-provoking film from Hollywood

You really ought to go and see ‘Crash‘, the directorial debut of the amusingly named Paul Haggis (who wrote the screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s film ‘Million Dollar Baby’).  It’s flawed — the New York Times reviewer didn’t like it much, for rather foggy reasons — but absorbingly intricate, intelligent, thought-provoking and sophisticated, as well as being superbly acted and directed.  It’s all about race, the interface of the races in Los Angeles and the interface also between racism and private individual experience.  Its chief virtue is its skilful use of paradox to represent human complexity:  each character initially portrayed convincingly as bigoted later turns out to have redeeming qualities and a capacity for selfless behaviour, with a sympathetically drawn background that partially explains (but does not excuse) the bigotry: and each character initially shown as liberal and virtuous is later shown to be flawed and capable of disastrous behaviour, again for comprehensible reasons. There are no goodies and no baddies in this movie, as perhaps in real life — not necessarily a fantastically profound message, but worth-while and here impressively put across.  As Philip French wrote in a generally admiring review in the Observer on 14 August 2005,

This is a world where good people can be forced into acting badly, and ostensibly bad people perform acts of kindness and heroism; where the guilty go free and decent men are spurned and punished; where the wise are baffled and the stupid go accidentally to the heart of the matter. 

Performances by Matt Dillon, Don Cheadle and Sandra Bullock, and others in a large cast including a rap artist called ‘Ludacris’ (Chris Bridges) are impeccable and often moving.  Two or three set-piece scenes are extraordinarily gripping, at least one of them actually hard to watch.  The plot, which interweaves a series of apparently unconnected individual stories yet brings them all into a relationship with each other, is ingenious and satisfying (it has been widely compared with those two brilliant movies, Altman’s ‘Short Cuts’ and Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Magnolia’).  There is violence, but it’s integral to the stories and generally turns out to be less gut-wrenching than first appears likely. 

Thandie Newton and Matt Dillon in ‘Crash’

So where lies the flaw that makes so many reviewers qualify their praise?  The person with whom I saw the film (you’ll never guess who)  commented afterwards that for all the tough action, violence and bigotry,  it’s really soft-centred:   fundamentally implausible coincidences are employed, not only to  link the characters and their stories by repeated chance encounters (reminding one reviewer of Anthony Powell’s kaleidoscope of recurring encounters in ‘A Dance to the Music of Time‘), but also to avoid the necessity for the tragic outcomes which are what the logic of real life, and of genuine realism, would require.  Almost all the victims of inevitable violence survive, and that’s hard to credit.  It’s by no means a case of a Hollywood ‘happy ending’:  almost all the characters are unhappy, in a variety of ways and for varied reasons; and there’s no suggestion that by the end of the film, they are going to be any less unhappy.  All the same, the coincidences and the improbable survival rates are unmistakeably contrived, and soften the impact of what is nearly a powerful and important film.   Go and see it while it’s still on general release, anyway, if you haven’t already.

Incidentally it’s not to be confused with another film of the same name, clever and watchable but sick, directed by David Cronenberg in 1996 about fetishising injuries resulting from car accidents.  Very different indeed!