Paul Haggis, screen scribe of 2004’s Oscar winner for Best Picture Million Dollar Baby, has made his Sophomore silver screen effort no less controversial or critically loved. This time though Haggis not only pens but directs his film. Crash, a title not meant to be taken literally (although the movie does have its fair share of them) is a film about something more fundamental, a violent crossing of paths. Haggis tears away the curtain of stereotypes surrounding the various ethnic and cultural groups inhabiting the City of Angels and shines the bright, sometimes harsh, light of reality in every uncomfortable nook and cranny he can conjure up in 113 minutes. From the opening scenes to the closing moments of the film Haggis takes the viewer, unflinchingly, into a world that, while it never feels comfortable, is sadly more frank and matter of fact about some of the most heated issues in America today then any movie has ever been.
Like finely woven cloth Crash is a film made of no less than eight distinct and separate story lines brought together in a way that creates a tightly cohesive work of art. Where these storylines cross exist the moments of pain that drive this movie. Whether it’s two black men (played by rapper Ludacris and Larenz Tate) extemporizing on the negative stereotypes surrounding African-Americans all before car jacking a white couple’s SUV, or a Middle Eastern storeowner (Shaun Toub) thinking he’s being cheated by a Hispanic locksmith (Michael Pena), we find that the common threads that bind them all together are fear and anger. While most viewers will find themselves enraged by the obscenely honest racial tension and stereotyping for most of the film, Haggis shakes things up by throwing in some of the most tear-jerking moments in cinema history. Haggis wraps up the separate storylines with each character experiencing a cathartic moment where they are forced to deal with the events of the previous 36 hours and confront what they thought they knew about themselves yesterday while simultaneously coming to grips with what they know today.
The acting in Crash is anything but trivial. Populated by some twelve different main characters, it is the emotions these characters bleed onto the screen that pulls the moviegoer into this world that Haggis has created. Sandra Bullock and Brendan Fraser pull off type-cast breaking performances as emotionally closed white upper class snobs, while Ryan Phillippe manages one of the most difficult roles in the entire film as a rookie cop forced to make some thorny choices while trying to maintain his personal code of ethics and sense of justice. The standout performance of the movie though was Terrance Howard’s portrayal of Cameron, a middle aged black TV sit-com director forced to watch as an LAPD officer (Matt Dillon) molests his wife during a pat down after being pulled over for driving the same model car that was stolen from the abovementioned Fraser and Bullock. Howard’s character begins to question his role in the world he lives in after his wife verbally emasculates him for not coming to her rescue during the aforementioned rape. With deep feeling and understated emotion we see this character progress from shock and resentment to bitter self loathing, culminating in an explosive outburst of pain and helpless frustration.
Cinematography and editing were both simple, and are used with an eye towards the narrative and character development. Clearly the director knew that this was a movie about emotion and so stays with tight close shots of the actors to emphasize feeling, only pulling back when necessary, to give the scene or shot a more dramatic flair. Here again we see that this movie is about the story not fancy camera tricks or flashy special effects. It was almost as if Haggis said to the actors, “You stand there and you sit there and I’m going to put the cameras here and here. Everyone got it? Action!” So straightforward yet powerful are many of the shots that one wonders if it was the small budget (6.5 million dollars) or the careful hand of a master at work that made the film this way. Considering his past work (Million Dollar Baby) and its simple yet commanding film style the latter is most likely the case.
With an 84 million dollar world wide gross Crash represents a 1300 percent return on investment for Lionsgate Entertainment not a number normally seen in these times of abysmal box office turn outs and 150 million dollar budget mega flicks a la the recent Star Wars Trilogy. This seeming financial windfall for the studio will not likely be forgotten by Hollywood execs and number crunchers, so look for more of this style of low budget simple film making to make a come back in the near future.
With more then twenty years of writing and directing experience in the television industry Paul Haggis has quickly and decisively positioned himself as a rising star in the film industry. His second outing as a writer and directorial debut with Crash has made him somewhat of a critics sweetheart. His uncluttered and emotionally provocative camera work along with an ability to write some of the most honest (sometimes shockingly so) dialog in American movies today is a breath of fresh air amongst the computer generated mega movies currently being generated by Hollywood. His unparalleled story telling ability combined with an uncanny gift at getting his actors to pour out their emotions for the audience will guarantee his place in Hollywood as an actor’s director. While many will, and do, find his subject matter controversial to say the least, it is this kind of disregard for the socially acceptable that has always revolutionized an artistic industry. At the end of the day Crash is not going to change the world or end racism but hopefully it will crack the walls that surround the issues so that people will.