Saturday, February 11, 2006

Issue of 2005-05-02

If there’s an ill-tempered remark that has ever been uttered in the city of Los Angeles that hasn’t found its way into Paul Haggis’s “Crash,” I can’t imagine what it is. “Crash” (opening May 6th) is about the rage and foolishness produced by intolerance, the mutual abrasions of white, black, Latino, Middle Eastern, and Asian citizens in an urban pot in which nothing melts. The characters run afoul of each other, say things better left unsaid, and get into terrible trouble. And yet the movie isn’t exasperating in the way that movies about steam-heated people often are. “Crash” is hyper-articulate and often breathtakingly intelligent and always brazenly alive. I think it’s easily the strongest American film since Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” though it is not for the fainthearted. In the first twenty minutes or so, the racial comments are so blunt and the dialogue so incisive that you may want to shield yourself from the daggers flying across the screen by getting up and leaving. That would be a mistake. “Crash” stretches the boundaries: after the cantankerous early scenes, it pulls us into the multiple stories it has to tell and becomes intensely moving.

Like other recent movies set in Los Angeles (“Grand Canyon,” “Short Cuts,” “Magnolia”), the picture is structured in vignette form, a natural dramatic outgrowth of a strange automotive paradise in which people live in separate racial and class enclaves, drive to work, and stick with their own. “We’re always behind this metal and glass,” a melancholy police detective, Graham (Don Cheadle), says as he sits in his car with his partner and girlfriend, Ria (Jennifer Esposito). “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.” This may seem a fancy conceit until one realizes that Haggis is pushing the word “crash” beyond the literal: he means any kind of rough contact between folks from different ethnic groups. But after the collision, what then? The stories, which begin on separate paths, slowly mesh; the characters are thrown together in bizarre ways, and they go past their initial distaste for each other and at least admit that they live in the same city, and are touched by the same fatality and magic.

Paul Haggis, who is fifty-two, was born in Canada; he crossed the border into the land of dreams and folly in his early twenties. For many years, he worked successfully in American television, and was responsible for, among other things, the short-lived but much-appreciated series “EZ Streets.” A few years ago, Haggis, working with his friend Bobby Moresco, wrote the screenplay for “Crash” on spec. Most writers who have been around as long as Haggis wouldn’t write anything—not even a thank-you note—on spec, but the virtues of working this way are obvious enough: “Crash” was created freely, without the usual anxieties that shape big-budget films. The screenplay then attracted a number of people eager to take some chances, including the star, Don Cheadle, who helped raise a production budget of $6.5 million, which is roughly one-tenth the budget of the average Hollywood studio feature. Yet “Crash” doesn’t look small. Haggis, in his first outing as director, has put together an extraordinary cast, and the stories are set high and low, in Brentwood and the ghetto, among cops and civilians, the young and the decrepit elderly.

“Crash” begins with out-of-focus lights, moving in the dark, as if a stunned post-collision consciousness were slowly coming back into focus. The time is Christmas, a very cold Christmas for Los Angeles, with dreamy flakes of snow in the air. At the side of the road the police are investigating a shooting; a young black man has been killed. Cheadle’s detective examines the crime scene and stares at something in horror. The movie then goes back to the previous afternoon and fills in the events leading up to Cheadle’s unhappy moment. Two young African-Americans, Anthony (the rapper Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Peter (Larenz Tate), argue merrily on the street. Anthony is convinced that everything in his life, including the large windows on Los Angeles buses, is part of a white plot to humiliate blacks. His friend tries to tease him out of it. The real joke, however, is that Anthony, who rants that whites assume that all young black men are thugs, actually is a thug, and when he and Peter spy a prosperous white couple walking down the street to their Lincoln Navigator, they jump them, at gunpoint, and take off in the car.

The couple, it turns out, are the Los Angeles district attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his spoiled-bitch Brentwood wife (Sandra Bullock). At home after the incident, the young D.A. complains hysterically that the incident, which is sure to become public, may lose him either the black vote or the law-and-order vote, and his wife, who saw trouble coming, is mad because people might think she’s a racist. Later the same evening, a prosperous black couple, Cameron (Terrence Howard) and Christine (Thandie Newton), are out on the town. A little drunk, Christine performs a companionable sex act on her husband as he drives their own Lincoln Navigator. A white cop, Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon), who’s got a heavy case of L.A.P.D. malaise—he knows he’s a racist but can’t suppress it—pulls them over, even though it’s obvious that their Navigator isn’t the stolen one. As his partner (Ryan Phillippe) looks on in disgust, Ryan humiliates the couple, reaching up between Christine’s thighs in a mock weapons search. Christine, shaken, taunts her husband for not standing up to the cops, a fight that sickens both of them, because it seems so old: the black manhood issue again. But also that night we see that Ryan’s father is in terrible pain from a misdiagnosed prostate problem, and Ryan can’t get a straight answer about his father’s condition from the black supervisor at their H.M.O. What Ryan does to the black couple is not justified by his problems, but, as we later find out, a racist can also be a good son and a good cop.

I give so much detail about a single plot thread because the entire movie is as intricately worked as this one piece of it. Haggis’s complex take on each furious encounter makes previous movie treatments of prejudice seem like easy and self-congratulatory liberalizing. Apart from a few brave scenes in Spike Lee’s work, “Crash” is the first movie I know of to acknowledge not only that the intolerant are also human but, further, that something like white fear of black street crime, or black fear of white cops, isn’t always irrational. In another strand, an Iranian shopkeeper named Farhad (Shaun Toub) has become a quarrelsome fool; he’s sure that everyone is out to cheat him. But this incensed man’s neighbors think that he and his family are Arabs, and trash his store. In Haggis’s Los Angeles, the tangle of mistrust, misunderstanding, and foul temper envelops everyone; no one is entirely innocent or entirely guilty.

“Crash” could have turned into an exploding nebula, the superheated pieces flying off into dramatic irrelevance (as they do in many of Lee’s movies), but Haggis has imposed a tight formal organization on his narrative. He has set up parallel events and characters (two wealthy couples, two daughters who save their fathers, and so on), and also multiple echoes and variations, all of which deepen the thematic lines. Haggis sustains the temporal fiction—a long day’s journey into night, then day, and then back to the film’s opening moment at night—with shrewdly timed cutting among the stories and with many silent moments in which a single character, staring at the city’s moving lights, falls into a brooding funk similar to Cheadle’s melancholy in the first scene. The moments of rest, deepened and prolonged by Mark Isham’s gentle electronic score, serve as caesuras between the high-tension scenes. There are plenty of angry people in movies and on television, but Haggis has an intimate feeling for the way rage fuels itself and redoubles—the demotic eloquence of the street, the marital quarrel, the police-station tirade. I can’t think of a single flat or dramatically pointless scene, and some of the big moments play out at the edge of insanity, where contentiousness spills over into tragedy or farce.

The actors grab at their roles as if their careers depended on it. Thandie Newton and Terrence Howard expose the kind of torment and shame that could drive this educated, privileged couple apart. Cheadle’s soft-spoken intelligence has become one of the most expressive elements in American cinema, and, as the man who sees the most, understands the most, and pays for his knowledge in suffering, he holds this movie together. But everyone steps up, including Matt Dillon, Sandra Bullock, and the angel-faced Ryan Phillippe, who pulls off a moment of near-calamity with character and force. The heart-swelling resolutions of the different stories will, I know, strike some viewers as overwrought. But hasn’t Haggis earned the tears? He has laid the groundwork for emotional release by writing some of the toughest talk ever heard in American movies. Some things may be better left unsaid, but the exuberant frankness of this movie burns through embarrassment and chagrin and produces its own kind of exhilaration.

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