Two young Black men walk out of an Italian restaurant in Westwood wondering if the quality of service received was based on the color of their skin. A Caucasian couple deals with the aftermath of being carjacked. A Latino father tries to shield his daughter from the effects of racism in their community. A Black police detective has difficulty sharing his problems with his Puerto Rican partner and lover. Two white cops deal with the older partner's racist leanings. A Black couple deals with racism on a daily basis.
"Crash", written and directed by Paul Haggis ("Million Dollar Baby", TV's "EZ Streets") handles all of these characters, and more, in a way that demands your undivided attention. As you watch these characters come alive and interact with one another, you realize that you are watching the work of a highly skilled filmmaker.
It is difficult to write about a film like "Crash". If I write in too much detail, I may give away a revelation or two, spoiling something in the film. If I write in vague terms, I won't be able to address the film adequately and convince you of the film's greatness. Oh, yes, "Crash" is a great film.
I have just barely grazed the surface of everything that happens to the various characters. The descriptions above also only graze the surface of each of the characters. In a way, the film resembles "Short Cuts" or "Magnolia", as it follows a large number of people through a short amount of time in Los Angeles. Unlike the films by Altman or Anderson, Haggis keeps the film under two hours, a blessing for most viewers. As you watch the film, you will learn about each of these people in ways that you probably won't expect. This is one involving, thought provoking film.
As the film opens, we meet the two men coming out of the restaurant. Their discussion is interesting and a bit funny, but a little theatrical. Soon, we meet another couple. Then these two couples interact. Quickly, we meet a third person. Then they interact with one of the previous people and we follow the new person to their home and learn a little about their family life. Then we meet a fourth, and quickly, they interact with a fifth, and so on. This sort of `round robin' method of story telling may sound a little confusing, but I was never lost and I doubt you will be either. The key is that each character is quickly established as an interesting though maybe disgusting, maybe normal, maybe conflicted person right away. Each person is fused into our subconscious with a few words or actions.
As the film switches back and forth, Haggis uses a number of techniques to keep the action fluid. For instance, we might follow the detective during a visit to his mother's house. As he leaves, he opens a door and the camera pans across the open door to follow the white District Attorney as he enters a meeting. Or, a character looks out a window and the camera pans across the window to reveal another character looking through their window. As the camera settles on them, the story then centers on this character. This technique creates a fluidity that keeps things moving. It also thrusts us into the middle of the action, causing our minds to keep working as we follow the stories, the characters, and the actions. Your eyes will be riveted to the screen the whole time.
Much of the beauty of the screenplay and directing is that each character is quickly established and becomes memorable. One character is introduced with a monologue revealing their deep-seated racism. It is a memorable scene. In the hands of most filmmakers, this would be the extent of exploration for this character. In the hands of Haggis, we then learn the more subtle aspects of this same character. Later, more examples of the character's racism. Then more about the same person's life. This leads to a very complete portrait of this person. Imagine the same level of detail applied to the other ten or eleven characters and you begin to get a feeling of the complexity of "Crash".
It would be difficult to classify any of the actors as the "star" of the film. It is a true ensemble piece. Each of the very good actors is playing a small role, but the roles are integral to the overall fabric of the story. Each actor is memorable. Don Cheadle, apparently the first person approached, read the screenplay and immediately signed on. He also helped to get the other actors involved in the project. His performance is, as always, great. Cheadle plays Graham, the black detective He is a tough guy, but what lies beneath the toughness? What caused him to have such a bleak outlook? During the course of the film, we learn these things, adding dimension to his character. Jennifer Esposito plays his partner, Ria. Sandra Bullock and Brendan Fraser play a married couple, each of whom has to deal with issues of racism, in different, believable ways. Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton play an affluent married couple. He is a successful television director who doesn't at first realize what he is dealing with when he and his wife have an encounter with two cops. This encounter is especially harrowing and hard to watch. It is also done in a completely believable manner, which makes it all the more disturbing. Those cops are played by Matt Dillon (in another great performance) and Ryan Phillippe. Michael Pena is particularly memorable as the Latino father. He is not well-known. Yet. Another couple of roles like this and he will break out of character actor roles. Ludacris and Larenz Tate play the two men who discuss their service at the restaurant in Westwood. Their performances are perhaps the most theatrical, and least believable, but they still work. They frequently have long conversations similar to the "Quarter Pounder in France" dialogue between Samuel Jackson and John Travolta in "Pulp Fiction". There are many more equally memorable characters, but these are the most recognizable names.
If it seems like I am holding back some information, I am. I don't want to reveal how these characters interact, completely, because that is part of the power of the film. As the stories progress, and we meet the characters, they keep changing, or encountering unexpected incidents. Part of the film's impact is the surprise we experience as these people's lives change throughout. Also, it is interesting to watch the sort of "Round Robin" style of storytelling I mentioned before.
"Crash" takes place over 36 hours in Los Angeles. The scenes set during the day are bright, a bit overexposed and grainy from bright sun. Some of the transitions are also caused by bright flashes of sun. Transitioning to night, there is little difference, because Los Angeles is so inundated with light. When the characters move to less populated areas, the film becomes darker, and grainier, due to the lack of light. This visual style fits the setting. It is more than a little refreshing to find a filmmaker who creates a film that has a lot of artistic flourish, but the flourishes only enhance the story. Too often filmmakers feel it necessary to show all of the tricks they can do, whether it serves the story or not. Haggis does show off some tricks, but they don't feel intrusive.
If it sounds like I'm gushing, I am. "Crash" is a great film. This is the type of film that should humble other filmmakers when they realize that someone has written and created something so great. How can they ever compare. Maybe "Crash" will spur artists to create more great films.