Crash is a parable, a morality tale. As such it is terse with respect to narrative style, and it is focused with respect to theme. But the film and the subject it tackles are far from simplistic.
Paul Haggis (screenplay for Million Dollar Baby) has assembled a remarkable cast for his directorial debut. His screenplay, co-written with Bobby Moresco, gives us well-defined characters whose dialogue sounds totally believable in displaying for us the many faces of racism.
The film is like Hamlet’s play within a play—the film as a device is itself a lens, a window through which we see the world. But the view through this particular lens is of a whole society of people who have jaded attitudes toward the people all around them.
Racism. Roger Ebert comments: “All are victims of it, and all are guilty it. Sometimes, yes, they rise above it, although it is never that simple.”
How do you look at the people you pass every day, see coming toward you on the sidewalk, in the grocery store, standing on the corner? Do you think of yourself as a racist? Do you pride yourself for treating all people the same? Is it possible to live with that kind of impartiality and lack of prejudice? Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon) offers this observation, “You think you know who you are. You have no idea.”
There is a cruelty and an ordinariness to the way the characters behave. We think we recognize them sometimes by stereotype, sometimes because we see ourselves, yet each one surprises us. No one is entirely what we expect, even though each one is hauntingly familiar. Even for those characters we think we understand there is a dark twist that unsettles us and conflicts our thinking. With each new character introduced, the “hot potato” (Ken Tucker, New York Magazine) gets passed along to move the film forward. But the forward movement is not a narrative development, but a panoramic sweep that quite literally comes full circle.
The film is stylish, simple, and symbolic. Don’t be surprised by its rather shameless use of conventions. “Some critics have criticized Crash for its reliance on coincidence. Which, given it’s a deliberately structured modern parable, is a bit like damning War of the Worlds for having aliens” (Andy Jacobs, BBC).
While the film’s presentation is a bit obvious (come critics call it “preachy”) in places, it’s not a film that plays “hard-to-get.” The parable begins with a clear statement of what the film sets out to accomplish. Detective Graham Walters (Don Cheadle) narrates: “It’s the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.”
Crash has hints of redemption but does not offer substantial resolution to so great a distortion of our perspective and so deep a problem which pollutes the human condition. The film is diagnostic and descriptive, and that is a good place to begin exploring how we can live differently, how our view of people and of our relationship to all we touch can change.