Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is a classic children's story about a day in which everything that can go wrong does go wrong for a young disgruntled kid. Paul Haggis's first film Crash is similar, only it's about the whole city of Los Angeles having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Alexander's mishaps came in all shapes and sizes, but the stressed-out L.A.-dwellers of Crash are suffering various manifestations of the same disease—racial prejudice. Discrimination seems to have conquered the city in an epidemic, the way the "Rage" virus turned Londoners into zombies in 28 Days Later. And unlike Alexander's story, Crash doesn't wrap things up in a tidy, happy ending. While each of the characters' hate-filled confrontations is plausible, a two-hour barrage of them leaves us weary and groping for something more meaningful and hopeful than this film has to offer.
Haggis, who adapted the similarly bleak Million Dollar Baby from the stories of F.X. Toole, has a flair for dark tales of human weakness. The screenplay he wrote for Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winner was powerful because it focused on three characters intently, drawing us deeply into their relationships. Crash, by contrast, has enough characters to fill a phone book. As in Grand Canyon, Short Cuts, Magnolia, and Thirteen Stories About One Thing, myriad wheels of narrative are turning all at once, interlocking in surprising ways. We're as dazzled by Haggis's plot-juggling act as we are by the intensity of his lament for a world that seems broken beyond fixing.
Perhaps the most effective quality of Crash is its scope. We all recognize certain familiar varieties of discrimination—government oppression, hate crimes, unflattering cultural caricatures. But under Haggis's microscope, the tumors of this cancer show up in people of all races, economic strata, and occupations, even in everyday business transactions. Many viewers will come away with a greater awareness of racism's complexity and the folly of believing that the government or the cops can fix the problem. They may even come to recognize the influence of racist ideas in their own behavior.
It's also impressive that Haggis's actors—well, most of them—are able to make scenes of clash and confrontation work without overreaching.
As Graham, a black, brooding, ambitious police detective, Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda) delivers another strong, slow-burn performance. Graham's the kind of cop who waxes philosophical as he watches a fender-bender turn into road rage. He's trying to be a man of integrity in a world that's unfair, but he's not above exploiting race in heated exchanges. When his coked-out mother stings him over the phone, he slaps her by revealing he's "having sex with a white woman."
That white woman, Ria (Jennifer Esposito of Taxi, Summer of Sam), who happens to be his partner on the force, has issues of her own. When she's rear-ended by a Chinese woman who speaks English poorly, she sneers, "What? Oh, I blake too fast?"
Crash frequently focuses on the almost impossible maze of political and personal challenges that big city policemen face on a daily basis. Ryan Phillippe (Gosford Park) plays Thomas, a rookie cop repulsed by his misbehaving partner Ryan (Matt Dillon). Ryan's such a bigot, he'll judge people on their name alone. When he can't get cooperation from a health insurance staffer named Chiniqua (Loretta Devine), he scoffs, "I look at you and I'm thinking about the five or six white guys who didn't get your job!"
When Ryan pulls over an African-American couple and proceeds to sexually molest the attractive mixed-race wife Christine (The Truth About Charlie's Thandie Newton) in front of her husband Cameron (Ray's Terrence Howard in an extraordinary performance), Thomas is too bewildered, horrified, and frightened to intervene. If there is a pivotal scene in the film, this is it—we sympathize with Thomas, we feel Christine's humiliation, and we share Cameron's anguish as he stands helpless. But Ryan's obscene act is just the beginning; it draws out surprisingly different reactions, motivated by different perspectives on racism, in everyone involved. Soon Christine and her husband are attacking each other, and Cameron snaps, "The closest you ever came to being black was watching The Cosby Show!"
Meanwhile, Anthony (rap star Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) and his happy-go-lucky pal Peter (Larenz Tate) dodge the cops, arguing about prejudice even as Anthony inspires it. He sees discrimination everywhere it can be found and in places it can't. When his temper gets triggered by a flinching white woman, what does he do about it? He steals a Lincoln Navigator from some rich people and takes it for a joyride.
But this time, he's nabbed the wrong vehicle. The SUV belongs to district attorney Rick Cabot (Brendan Fraser) and his perpetually angry wife Jean (Sandra Bullock). Fraser strikes the perfect tone, convincing us that Cabot's political platform is a house of cards. If the D.A. doesn't spin the car-theft story to the press just right, he'll infuriate black voters or alienate those who just want him to "take a bite out of crime." Meanwhile, Jean responds to the theft by taking it out on her Hispanic housekeeper and hurling accusations at a Hispanic locksmith (Michael Pena). Playing Miss Non-Congeniality seems like a bold move for Bullock; she lashes out with expletives as if trying to crack the façade of her famously likeable Hollywood persona. But Jean is a one-note character, and thus the performance comes off as a comedienne's audition for dramatic roles instead.
If this is starting to sound complicated, and if the ironies seem to be piling up, well, that's exactly the case. Haggis deftly weaves these various threads together in a remarkably cohesive narrative so that we never lose our place or forget a face. But his attention is focused so narrowly on The Big Issue that his characters seem incapable of talking about anything but prejudice.
In Grand Canyon, Lawrence Kasdan's characters had more developed personalities and enjoyed moments of levity and redemption. Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing was vibrant with memorable human beings, and thus the stakes seemed very high indeed when the dam holding back suppressed racial anger finally broke. Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia was full of lost souls, but there were also agents of grace; he invited us to make connections, compare and contrast relationships, and find common themes. The dialogue of Haggis's characters spells things out for us. "In L.A., nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass," Graham muses after a car crash. "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." Too many lines like this cause Crash to compromise the first rule of art—it tells too much and shows too little.
The billboard-sized ironies and convenient coincidences make things worse. When a man hit by a car is abandoned in front of the emergency room, he's left lying next to a Nativity scene. A cop's attempt to distance himself from the problem of prejudice is cut short by a superior officer who can't help him … because of racial prejudice. To some, it may seem clever that the film begins and ends with fender-benders; for others, this conclusion will close a circle with far too little hope inside, implying endlessness.
While he has little to say about hope, there's value in Haggis's perspective on the problem. He never stoops to making a scapegoat of anyone—each character is fractured, biased, blind in some way, and by implication, so are we. Crash may provoke viewers to wrestle with relevant questions: Do we react differently to the person who cuts us off in traffic depending on her color? Do we smile at one stranger and then flinch at the next? Do our choices reinforce damaging racial stereotypes? When we're the victim of a prejudice "crash," how do we respond? With grace? Or do we throw fuel on the fires of anger and contempt?
Magnolia showed us that selfishness thrives on spiritual emptiness, and it suggested a divine benevolence could intervene and influence our broken human existence. Haggis doesn't seem interested in looking upward or outward; he can only look down and shake his head in despair, wishing that human beings would just stop being so mean to each other. Racism, like pride, selfishness, and all of those ongoing sins, is too deep-rooted for us to solve on our own. Anybody who looks closely at history knows that placing tomorrow's hopes entirely on human nature will lead to a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad future.Discussion starters
- Select three of the main characters in the film. Compare and contrast their different feelings about race. How did their perspectives influence their behavior? What were their blind spots? What were their virtues?
- Consider Anthony's rant about the way white people still discriminate against black people. Do you think his perspective is accurate? Exaggerated? Completely wrong? How does his behavior influence the way people look at him?
- Discuss the episode in which Ryan pulls over the married couple. Did he have good cause for stopping that vehicle? Who in that scene do you most relate to? Why? What would you have done in Thomas's place?
- Discuss the episode in which Graham has to make a political decision that will affect both justice and his career. What would you have done in his position?
- Talk about ways in which you encounter discrimination in your own daily life. Do you ever find that your own behavior is influenced by either the racism of others or your own imperfect perspectives?
- What can we do, day-to-day, to search our own hearts and practice better relationships with people of different origins, colors, and cultures?
- How did Jesus respond to people who were discriminated against (women, the poor, the sick)? Discuss examples of Jesus' behaviors that unsettled and shocked those looking on.
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Crash is R-rated for much profanity, scenes of violence and sexual misbehavior, and nudity. It is definitely an adults-only film. But the explicit content is, for the most part, a responsible and realistic portrayal of contemporary societal problems.
Photos © Copyright Lions Gate Filmscompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 05/12/05
Crash has enough characters to fill a phone book. As in Grand Canyon, Short Cuts, Magnolia, and Thirteen Stories About One Thing, myriad wheels of narrative are turning all at once, interlocking in surprising ways. We're as dazzled by Haggis's plot-juggling act as we are by the intensity. As he focuses on his theme, he makes it seem as if discrimination has conquered the city in an epidemic, the way the "Rage" virus turned Londoners into zombies in 28 Days Later. While each of the characters' hate-filled confrontations is plausible, a two-hour barrage of them leaves us weary and groping for something more meaningful and hopeful than this film has to offer.
My full review is at Christianity Today Movies.
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says it's "a powerful, expertly crafted film with a strong moral center and a fascinating subtext about race relations and fear. Haggis takes a story and milieu that at first seems sordid and ugly and turns it into something redemptive and beautiful. He's helped immeasurably by a terrific cast. Everyone is in top form."
Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) calls it "a riveting, provocative and well-executed movie." But he draws mixed conclusions. "If everyone in the real L.A. thought and acted like its onscreen denizens do, the City of Angels would've been blown sky-high a long time ago. So clearly, Haggis is sensationalizing racism for the sake of making a point. I [came away] aware of the ultra-thick layer of grimy material I had just waded through to be reminded of this simple notion: We're all different; we're all the same; and we all need each other. At the risk of sounding trite, I could've watched Sesame Street to tell me that."
J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) writes, "Haggis is clearly of the school that says we need to get things out in the open—we've let the topic of race fester behind closed doors too long. Fortunately, he not only examines these racial dynamics but also how variations in power affect those dynamics."
Mainstream critics are giving it good reviews.from Film Forum, 05/19/05
Andrew Coffin (World) says, "The strength of Crash rests in [screenwriter Paul] Haggis's readiness to allow for depth of character even in unattractive people, and his willingness to admit that racial distrust and hatred is born out of a complex web of rationales and experiences. However, he's so single-mindedly focused on race that racism exists almost entirely as a cause, not as a symptom—where it could be usefully seen in the larger context of fallen human nature."
Brett McCracken (Relevant) says, "When it comes down to it, Crash wrecks its chances of having the same impact of other provocative race films (like Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing) by trying to be too much. It tries to be exciting, sad, surprising and life-changing. It tries to sell a world in which every interaction is somehow race-related or a 'crash' of cultures. It is a world too hyperbolized to believe and less attuned to real human interaction than to archetypical Hollywood versions of it. Still, despite its imperfections, Crash contains important human truths and questions that need to be asked."
A ready-to-download Movie Discussion Guide related to this movie is available at ChristianityTodayMoviesStore.com. Use this guide after the movie to help you and your small group better connect your faith to pop culture.