Sunday, May 25, 2014

Crash (2004)

Director: Paul Haggis                                    Writer: Paul Haggis & Robert Moresco
Film Score: Mark Isham                                Cinematography: J. Michael Munro
Starring: Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon and Terrence Howard

There’s little doubt that Crash was the winner of the Academy Award for best picture by default. That was the year of Brokeback Mountain and Academy members were reluctant to give the award to a film that dealt so openly with homosexuality. By contrast, a film that dealt openly with racism seemed perfectly acceptable. What do you know, racism goes mainstream. Unlike my disappointing experience with Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, however, this film at least seems to have a point. And while it may not contain any more answers, at least it does address the ubiquitous nature of racism instead of one small slice. Don Cheadle delivers the title line when he says the people of Los Angeles are so removed from each other that their need to interact makes the crash into each other. It’s the first of a lot of contrived situations and dialogue that, nevertheless, are thought provoking.

The film begins with the unmarked police car of Don Cheadle and Karina Arroyave being rear ended by an Asian woman and Arroyave unloading on her in a racist way. They are actually there to investigate the death of young man. Then the scene shifts to twenty-four hours earlier. Ludacris and Larenz Tate are walking through a white business district and carjack the SUV of district attorney Brendan Fraser and his wife Sandra Bullock. Back at their house afterward she is having the locks changed by Michael Peña and believes he’s going to sell her keys, which he overhears. Looking for the SUV, police officers Matt Dillon and Ryan Phillippe pull over television director Terrence Howard and his wife Thandie Newton and the racist Dillon humiliates them both before letting them go. Meanwhile Iranian store owner Shaun Toub needs protection and takes his daughter along with him to buy a gun. Later, he needs his back door lock fixed and when Peña tells him he needs a new door he seems as though he wants to use his new gun on him.

The central idea of the film is the exposing of racism in all it’s forms and the way in which all Americans have been affected by it. But this is not unique to the U.S., as racism in many forms exists worldwide. In terms of plot, the way in which the lives of all the characters begin to intersect is interesting, and they are woven together in a clever way. Still, it’s more than just the racism, but the way the characters handle it that is so compelling to watch. Cheadle has a sick mother and is dating his partner, Arroyave, and has his own prejudices, but faces a barrage of it with the D.A. publicity man William Fichtner. Terrence Howard goes into a slow burn that explodes later when Ludacris attempts to jack his car. When Phillippe wants to transfer away from Dillon he runs into Keith David who gives him a dose of reality by telling him he’ll have to blame it on himself. But the film doesn’t reach its emotional climax until Toup does go after Peña with his gun.

The film earned six Academy Award nominations and won in three categories, best picture, original screenplay, and editing. Writer-director Paul Haggis would go on the following year to pen the Oscar-winning screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, the only writer to win back-to-back trophies (though Alexander Payne came close), and later wrote and directed the action film The Next Three Days with Russell Crowe. His work here as a director is adequate, though hardly transcendent, and considering films like Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck were also nominated it’s a bit puzzling how the film won. The star-studded cast no doubt helped, though honestly, it’s a bit of a B-list cast in reality. Still, the film was a step forward in taking on racism, and paved the way for more exploration of the subject in other films like Eastwood’s Gran Torino. Crash may not have deserved the Oscar that year, but it’s not a bad film and delivers entertainment and introspection in equal doses.

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