Million Dollar Baby scribe wows with Crash

By John Frame

Paul Haggis, screenwriter of the best film of 2004—the brilliant Million Dollar Baby—makes his directorial debut with the equally intriguing and forceful Crash. Crash is a film that hits us in the one place we spend our lives trying to protect: the heart.

Crash is not only a film about race relations; it is also incredibly real in its contemporary colloquial dialogue and three-dimensional characters. Too many people to count turn up in the most unlikely situations, catalyzed by their own insecurities and preconceived notions of the “others” that live around them.

Recreating the entire plot of the film would take several pages, but ultimately, Haggis presents each individual story like a house of cards—each story can only exist because of the one before it, the one after it, and even a distant story yet to come. Crash is a film that intertwines the lives of the most unlikely people in even more implausible situations. But does it work? Absolutely. Although sometimes the coincidences can be a little overwhelming, the film hits us so deeply that we forget about the details.

The film opens with the incident that occurs at the very end of the film. Then we are propelled to the day before where—as the film’s trailer states—”in the next 36 hours all [of these lives] will collide.” We are introduced to Anthony (rapper Ludacris in a breakthrough performance) and his good friend Peter (the always enjoyable Larenz Tate), two young black men who will completely surprise us just a couple of minutes into the film.

After accusing a black waitress in an upscale restaurant of racial discrimination, the two carjack a frightened Jean (played by Sandra Bullock, who surprises us with her talent) and her husband Rick (played by Brendan Fraser). What will happen next will be 90 minutes in the lives of these four characters as they collide with each other and several others, including a Persian family, a black middle-class couple, and a blatantly racist cop.

Matt Dillon gives one of the best performances of his career as that racist cop, Officer Ryan, who becomes one of the essential elements of the story when he pulls over a black couple, Christine and Cameron, in a truck that doesn’t fit the description of the one stolen by Anthony and Peter. The underappreciated Thandie Newton plays Christine with ease. Her character is real, handling the incident between her and Officer Ryan with controlled anger and disgust.

As Officer Ryan sexually harasses her while her husband (Terrence Howard) looks on and apologizes, we understand her pain. Some of the best scenes of the film involve Newton and Howard. An interesting reappearance of Dillon in one of the most surprising, heartbreakingly suspenseful scenes will leave you emotionally drained.

Recent Academy Award nominee Don Cheadle is brilliant, as always, playing a cop who we initially love, but we eventually come to reconsider. Every character in this film is not what he or she seems. That is the beauty and the sadness of the film; they could be any one of us. They are people we see on the bus, people we work with, and people we love. This film highlights that fact in a way that will challenge us all.

There are many more stories that will collide, overlap, and complicate situations. But Crash is ultimately about combating our own racist thinking. Do we ever realize that the person we call Pakistani is really Persian? Or that the person we are sleeping with isn’t Mexican, but has a history rich with ancestry from El Salvador and Puerto Rico? That the Hispanic guy changing our locks is a working-class man with a family and not a gang-banger? That the black TV director is actually, well, black, despite how he speaks? That perhaps our own insecurities give rise to a backlash against the innocent?

What Crash teaches us—perhaps with a bit of a heavy hand—is that we must have sympathy for those who are not like us. We should not judge or create stereotypes of what it is like to be someone else. I must say that despite some lengthy dramatic moments, Crash is a film that, in the wake of so much racial tension and controversy, is necessary for us to see ourselves in these characters.