Much has been made of 2004’s Crash, mostly because a lot of people think that it was undeserving of the Oscar for Best Picture. I haven’t seen Brokeback Mountain, which was apparently the front-runner, but looking at the candidates that year overall, I’d say it was sort of a low-key year for nominees, and probably could’ve been anybody’s game. Personally? I think Munich was better, but that’s all in the past now, isn’t it?
None of that is to say that I thought Crash wasn’t a good movie, because I did. It’s a really intense ensemble piece dealing with racism in present-day Los Angeles. Written and directed by Paul Haggis, the cast includes Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Ryan Phillipe, Terrence Howard, Thandie Newton, and Michael Pena. A series of random events tie all of these different people together, while addressing the varied aspects of dealing with race-relations. Each of the characters, at some point, finds himself (or herself) on either side of that divide. Los Angeles being one of the most diverse places in the country, we see white characters, black characters, Asian characters, Hispanic characters, and Middle Eastern characters who are all struggling to make their way in a world that is truly dog-eat-dog.
One thing Crash has going for it is its outstanding cast. Everyone turns in a good performance, even though it’s definitely an ensemble piece, and there’s not actually as much “high drama” as one might expect. Of slightly more importance, though, is the feel of the movie. The tone has a quiet, slow-burning intensity, heightened by the manner in which the film jumps from vignette to vignette, showing us short clips of the characters’ lives. The way in which Haggis shows us instances of racism (or negative reactions to racism) are sometimes subtle and sometimes not. The real message comes from the moments in which he reminds us that nothing is really as simple and clear-cut as it seems. Someone who behaves badly one minute may behave heroically the next, or vice versa. The ideas of racism are, unfortunately, tied up in our culture, so that race becomes a card to be played under the right circumstances. Judgements made based on the color of someone’s skin or how we behave are not limited to people of different cultures; sometimes they can come from our own flesh and blood. There are no good guys and bad guys; only people who do good or ill depending on the circumstances in which they find themselves.
All in all, Crash is a little inconsistent. It’s a bit hard to follow at times, and it ends somewhat abruptly. I think as an audience, we are inclined to prefer stories that are tied up neatly with a bow at the end, unless we are already anticipating a sequel. Crash is a bit like real life in that way, ending on an ambiguous note. We don’t feel that anyone has necessarily learned their lesson or changed; they’ve just been through another day, is all. Still, I found the movie to be very thought-provoking, and its treatment of the subject matter gained import from being set in the present day, and without a lot of judgement or moralizing. Definitely not a feel-good movie, although it has its moments. Whether or not anyone thinks it “deserved” its Best Oscar designation, I think it’s still a worthy film, and I’d recommend it.