Movie Review
Director: Paul Haggis
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon

it takes a childish or corrupt imagination to make symbols out of people.” — Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life

Canadians, you may know, have an innate knowledge of who else is Canadian. Actors, directors, writers, athletes, it doesn’t matter; if they attended “grade six” instead of “the sixth grade,” somehow we know about it. And we like to talk about it, too. As a result, despite a seizure-inducing aversion to network situation comedy, I cannot stop myself from remarking, when I happen to catch his wiry frame onscreen, that Eric McCormack from Will & Grace was born in Toronto (then raised in Calgary). I don’t know how I know this, but I do. And I can’t help it.

Paul Haggis, writer and director of Crash, is precisely the kind of Canadian whose nationality will provoke an enthused “Oh, really?” from a lunch room full of otherwise jaded co-workers. Used appropriately, it’s the kind of obscure tidbit that works as a kind of small-talk capital; it’s best used in between a chat about the near-toppling of a federal government or the marked lack of hockey playoffs.

"You don't understand...There's Something About Mary MOVED me..."

Haggis’s starting point, however, even before he wrote the screenplay for last year’s lauded Million Dollar Baby, was at the creative helm of a short-lived CBS TV series called Due South, which contrasted the behaviour of a fastidious Mountie to that of a “street-smart” American cop. The show’s fish-out of-water premise failed even with Canadian audiences, perhaps because it refused to acknowledge the fact that Americans and Canadians, though different in significant ways, are exactly the same in many others.

Now Haggis has written and directed a film about race relations in Los Angeles, which is about as far away from London (Ontario!) as it gets. The many characters in Crash, however, do not have the same advantage as your average stealthy Canadian living in Hollywood: unable to hide their roots, the film’s subjects face persecution and racism from all sides, and constitute an Altmanesque ensemble piece that examines nearly every facet of minority life in California.

In one such storyline, an L.A. district attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his wife (Sandra Bullock) fall victim to a car-jacking that provokes a virulent bout of heretofore unseen bigotry. In another, a Persian shop-owner (Shaun Toub) loses his family store to a misunderstanding about the minutia of his insurance policy. In yet another, a rookie cop (Ryan Phillippe) refuses to ride with his racist partner (Matt Dillon), only to discover prejudices repressed within himself.

The storylines follow a path that we are led to believe is the movie’s inevitable conclusion, and they rely heavily upon convention. The cliché of the racist cop, for example—followed by a tidy explanation of the reason for his thinking—or that of the crime victim developing a prejudice against her assailants, seem more suitable for a particularly Huxtabilious episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air than a serious examination of the societal forces that shape racist attitudes.

It’s also hard not to fault Haggis for the film’s obvious similarities to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, with its borrowed tone of elegiac reconciliation and piecemeal “mosaic” of life in L.A. The difference between the films is that Anderson’s let loose the contents of its maker’s considerable subconscious, while Crash is a much more controlled, even contrived affair. The film’s climax, I should note, features a song that recalls Aimee Mann’s maternal presence throughout Magnolia’s many song sequences. (The song, “In the Deep” by Kathleen York, is even played over a weatherman-mystifying bout of precipitation, akin to bullfrogs plopping down from the heavens.)

You would think the snow might put the fire out...

But it is precisely this forced resolution that compromises Haggis’s message: if the racism that plagues North American life flows through every aspect of our exchanges with one another, is it really necessary to present a series of revelatory “miracles” that, instead of leaving the viewer appropriately unsettled, serve only to invite further complacency?

That said, the film goes miles beyond the public service announcement quality of pop culture’s past attempts to pretend that racism can be stamped out with good intentions. Indeed, the film seems to take pains to oppose—to cite a particularly nefarious example—Michael Jackson’s optimistic 1992 assertion that “it don’t matter if you’re / Black or white.” “Well, unfortunately it does,” Crash retorts, “and why is that?”

As in most ensemble dramas, there are the standouts, like Matt Dillon’s bigoted LAPD officer, which proves once again that Dillon is at his best (There’s Something About Mary) when he is at his most thickheaded, and Thandie Newton, whose startling ghoulishness in Jonathan Demme’s Beloved haunts even her more innocuous roles.

Like Haggis’s Due South, Crash would benefit from some subtlety. Themes and character studies work best when they are at least somewhat hidden from view and are allowed to breathe on their own outside of a larger directorial scheme. Characters, after all, are people too.

By: Bob Kotyk
Published on: 2005-05-27
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