Los Angeles is both a genuine mulitculti melting pot and a city of pervasive, even institutionalized racism. Paul Haggis' ensemble drama, Crash, comprises a series of interlocking vignettes attempting to span the city and to peer into its troubled soul.
Haggis, who most recently adapted Million Dollar Baby, co-wrote the film with Bobby Moresco, directed, and produced it on a shoestring budget. Not that you'd guess from the film's impressive roster of name actors, including Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser, Larenz Tate and Ryan Phillippe, and the easy facility with which the intricately plotted story unfolds.
Crash begins with a traffic accident, itself an unnatural event that re-orders the course of normality. The film then flashes back 36 hours to introduce a wide-ranging cast of city residents whose paths crisscross sure as bumpers collide on Los Angeles streets. A sanguine police detective named Graham (Don Cheadle) is our primary guide. During the film's opening car accident, he muses, "It's the sense of touch. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something."
Cops, politicians and TV producers; women, children and aged parents; black, white, Asian, Latino and Middle Eastern; rich, working-class and penniless -- their lives crash together here, causing wounds both physical and psychic. There are no real heroes, yet every character gets a redemptive moment, even if it's only a flicker of sympathy for an otherwise unlikable character.
For every scene loaded for narrative impact -- a car-jacking or a narrowly escaped death -- Haggis crafts workaday moments that function just as effectively. Take a short scene between a brutish cop (Matt Dillon) and an HMO administrator (Loretta Devine). It's a squabble over health care that illustrates -- in just a few sentences, a purposefully emphasized word and a perceptible shift in tone -- how deep prejudices run, how entangled they are with other, desirable emotions, and how they can make a petty dispute insurmountable.
For the most part the film avoids the self-congratulatory tone that often accompanies films that dare to tackle such tough topics. Haggis says race -- and our perceptions of it -- do matter; he posits that stereotypes exist because they can contain truths, even ugly ones. (Some portion of the film is sure to raise your hackles.) But Crash is also about class, power, money, gender, age and -- in L.A., an artificially constructed metropolis of privately guarded enclaves amid a wide-open ugly city -- location.
Pondering Haggis' ambitious drama afterward, I wonder if it is even possible to make an intelligent film about uneasy race relations that can satisfy all. Crash on one level seems to suggest that it cannot be done -- too many people have too many varied hot buttons -- yet the film also suggests it may be just as detrimental not to try.