Crash (2004) Review

Los Angeles is a city of isolation, a sprawling dystopia in which people are shielded behind metal and glass, alienated from any sense of touch or feeling. In Crash, Paul Haggis' debut feature, the writer/director examines the consequences that arise after a group of Angelinos crash into each other, setting off a chain-reaction of racial discrimination and soul-searching moments of painful introspection. Beginning in a quiet shopping district around the Thanksgiving period, two black youths discuss the ways in which they are shunned by American society – instantly labelled as criminals and "niggers" – before pulling guns out of their jackets and carjacking a middle-aged white couple. This hypocrisy, and thinly-veiled streak of sardonic humour, is a sure sign of what is to follow.

Criss-crossing between a District Attorney and his stuck-up wife, a young black cop and his El Salvadorian girlfriend (who he mistakes for being Mexican in an amusing post-coital argument), a rookie white cop whose partner is an unforgiving racist, a black TV producer who is persecuted for having a white wife and a Persian store owner who feels the need to buy a gun for protection, Crash is a very engaging and stimulating analysis of the current climate in the Western world. No race or creed is left untouched as Haggis weaves a tightly-constructed narrative through the snowy streets of L.A., and despite its flaws, Crash is one of the best films of the year so far.

Reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson's stunning Magnolia, and containing similarities to Altman's Short Cuts, Crash is a certainly a well-made film. Although its central message may be diluted somewhat by a lack of naturalism and too much self-awareness in certain scenes, it is undeniable that Haggis has managed to combine an ensemble of terrific performances with memorable direction and a rounded script. In fact, I would go as far to say that Matt Dillon delivers a career-best performance, as do Sandra Bullock and Thandie Newton, and these are only three examples of how the actors within Crash fully embrace their roles with touches of sensitivity and conviction. Even Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, renowned "bad boy rapper", manages to offer a realistic and provocative turn as a young black man whose justification for a life of crime is the ingrained racial prejudice amongst all white Americans. And, as we soon find out, his viewpoint is certainly justifiable; Bullock's stuck-up bitch fears a Mexican locksmith because of his prison tattoos and shaven head, whereas we watch him tenderly kissing his daughter goodnight and acting like a real person as opposed to a violent racial stereotype. On the flip side, we witness how a Persian's misconceptions that all Americans are against all those from the Middle East prove to be untrue – sure, some Angelinos are inherently racist, whilst others offer friendship and a sense of belonging for these immigrants. And although some of these moments may sound vomit-inducing, it is a testament to Haggis' filmmaking abilities that he skilfully pulls the wool over our collective eyes and manipulates our emotions into actually caring for these characters, regardless of the saccharine-sweet message painted underneath the surface.

However, as I mentioned above, Crash is not without its flaws. A film such as this, in which multiple plot strands are interlinked, requires a large amount of creative genius to structure it in a way that doesn't seem contrived; sadly, there are occasions when events occur for reasons that are "Hollywood-esque" and lack any basis in reality. Sure, it may look pretty when all the characters become interdependent on one another's actions and interact simultaneously, but Haggis overlooked how ridiculous some of these setups seem. Furthermore, the characters in the film are mere ciphers, broad caricatures of their respective races and the film's short running time doesn't allow for their individual character traits to appear. There are some exceptions, namely the Mexican locksmith and Matt Dillon's racist cop, but better films (Anderson's Magnolia is a brilliant example) managed to mix their central message with acutely-observed characters that actually felt like real people resonating off the screen. On the plus side, the film is so visually dazzling that these idiosyncrasies become easier to sweep under the carpet.

It may seem strange to say this, but I found Crash to also be a very funny film – and whilst the laughs come from our own racial misconceptions, which I acknowledge, it is interesting to later realise that our laughter is a way for us to begin to realise why we shouldn't actually laugh at such matters and characters. So had my misconceptions about race relations been corrected by the end of the film? Well, yes and no – whilst Crash is an undeniable piece of skilful manipulation, Haggis does insert some very real and very true points within his narrative framework.

Technically, the film is brilliant. Mark Isham's score and Bird York's haunting "In the Deep" are perfect musical accompaniments to the visual imagery, whilst James Muro's cinematography and Laurence Bennett's production design not only make the film look astounding, but their work also allows the film to escape from its low-budget origins and become a rounded, vastly enjoyable cinematic experience.

The Disc
Released through Lions Gate, this R1 version of Crash is released some three months before the UK's. Based on preliminary information, it would appear both regions' versions are identical.

The menus are animated and very pleasing to look at; they are very easy to navigate. English and Spanish subtitles are provided during the main feature - they are presented in a clear and readable font.

Audio-Visual Presentation
For a modern release, the video transfer is unsurprisingly good – aside from odd moments of aliasing, I was very pleased with the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen print which is sharp and vibrant throughout, showcasing the film's extensive palette of colours; blacks are notably deep and solid. Skin tones also appear natural, and thankfully I couldn't spot any grain or compression artefacts to spoil the beauty of the film's visuals.

There is a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0 Stereo soundtracks, and naturally the former is the better of the two. Powerful without being overbearing, the soundstage is well-defined and both the front and rear channels are crisp and clear. Although the majority of the film is dialogue-driven, music – and the odd sound effect – is reproduced to good effect through the rear speakers.

The best extra is an audio commentary from Paul Haggis, co-writer Bobby Moresco and producer/actor Don Cheadle, which is an incredibly informative and engaging banter between the film's main driving forces.

A very brief video introduction to the DVD by Haggis is utterly pointless, although the 10-minute making-of featurette, featuring interviews with cast and crew, is interesting if a little short. Wrapping up the (small) package is a music video and a selection of trailers.

If swallowed with a pinch of salt, Crash is a vastly entertaining and thought-provoking piece of work that confronts a series of controversial and provocative themes with compassion and considerable aplomb. This R1 DVD release from Lions Gate is equally worthy, offering an insightful audio commentary along with strong audio and visual presentation. Considering the R2 disc doesn't hit our shores for another three months, I would advise any prospective buyers to import this release instead.

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