Sunday, August 26, 2012

Cinema 2004: Crash

"Crash" has been called a film about racism, a description which nails its leitmotif but fails to do justice to an engrossing film about a variety of people loving and hating in L.A.

The movie, written, directed and co-produced by Caucasian Canadian Paul Haggis, comes at its subject matter from so many angles it might even appeal to some racists.

“Crash” provides plenty of drama to keep the enjoyment level high while a mixed bag of racial and ethnic stereotypes parade in front of the camera lens. As the pieces to the puzzle-like narrative fall into place, we are shown ostensible reasons for racism, but also persons who refuse to give in to hate.

In “Crash” Haggis also dares to point out that there are no guarantees: someone’s racially motivated judgment may just turn out to be accurate in a particular instance. Without moralizing or even leaving us with a moral at the end of the story, "Crash" does, however, lament the ultimately losing proposition racism represents -- whether it is practiced by an individual or a bureaucracy. The anger and hatred recycled throughout the City of Angels by the racially prejudiced characters in this film is shown to be a destructive force that takes a human toll.

Sandra Bullock plays a district attorney's wife, defined by attendant privilege. When she is traumatized by armed carjackers, it brings out the bile of her biased views. Bullock’s performance is absolutely raw; she is a woman alone with her anger, whose husband (Brendan Fraser) is more involved with political damage control than reconnecting with his spouse after their harrowing experience.

Matt Dillon is a cop who blames "the job" for his lack of humanity and the dehumanizing way he interacts with others, whether they are African-Americans, women, Hispanics or rookie cops. And it is "the job" which will ultimately define him.

Don Cheadle, also a co-producer, plays a police detective whose senile mother blames him for the misspent life of his younger brother (Larenz Tate), an otherwise intelligent kid, who just happens to practice armed robbery. Cheadle’s character is all too well aware of the ramifications of race on his job and in his department. However, he is paralyzed to act against it by the same world-weariness, acquired from years of chasing down bad guys, that arguably allows him to continue to function in his job while caring for his increasingly helpless mother.

Rookie officer Hanson (Ryan Philippe) is disgusted by gratuitous abuse. But his instincts are not yet honed enough for him to successfully navigate the hard-to-predict world of cops and robbers.

An African-American TV director (Terrence Howard) is forced by events to re-examine his place in society. When and where he chooses to make his stand might reflect the stranglehold of “the man” or it might just hold the key to real social change. Viewers will decide for themselves.

Thandie Newton delivers a performance of wide-ranging authentic emotions in her pivotal role as Cameron’s wife. Chris “Ludacris” Bridges plays Anthony, the garrulous “Go To” guy in a gang of two. Armed and delusional, he rants about conspiracy theories on racially charged themes, while preying upon solid citizens. But when his snub-nose is wrested from him during an attempted carjacking, Anthony is symbolically emasculated, and he freezes in fearful helplessness. Afterward he slips back into his criminal routine, but Anthony may have found religion or at least a moral line on the asphalt that he is not ready to cross.

In one subplot we watch a loving father provide for his preschool daughter while trying to keep her safe from gun violence. At the same time, a caring adult daughter reluctantly helps her angry storekeeper father purchase a gun he is convinced he needs for his protection. The unlikely convergence of those separate households plays out like a karmic ballet.

At times in “Crash” it seems as if L.A. is home to only hateful people. But amid all the useless bluster we are also given a glimpse of the potential for a racially harmonious future. It lies within the grasp of each of us, literally: the same hands that violate, can also save and console.

"Crash" also holds up the inherent innocence of children as part of the plan for a better future. Aligned against this hope is a formidable adversary: the prejudice alive in men's hearts and society's institutions.

“Crash” teeters at times on a cliff of conspicuous contrivance and melodrama, but its in-your-face attitude, the praiseworthy lyricism of James Muro’s cinematography and an emotive musical score keep it from plunging over the edge.

In the big city, with its fast pace, complex institutions and disparate populations, it is all too expeditious to misjudge based on skin shade or language. “Crash” leaves its audience questioning the wisdom of basing important choices on such insignificant matters.

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