This review was originally published at Christianity Today in May 2005.
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!”
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.