Wednesday, October 27, 2010

When Perfection Is Neither Enjoyable Nor Entertaining: Crash Wonderfully Explores Difficult Issues.

The Good: Excellent acting, Great characters, Direction - Ability to evoke mood, Thematic unity without simplicity
The Bad: Minor pacing issues (very much not an issue after multiple viewings!)
The Basics: In a difficult film that forthrightly explores interethnic relations in Los Angeles, a variety of characters relate or disjoint based on prejudice or tolerance.

When I was in college, I was not into sports so I derived great joy and a little profit from betting on award shows. Ever since then, I have picked my winners each year for the major award shows and kept score. I have a ridiculously high average for correctness when my average is factored using my "who ought to win/who will win" ratio. There were a string of years for the Oscars when the "Best Picture" category was unredeemably bad (a stretch following American Beauty to when Return of the King won) and I was frequently disappointed by either the nominees or the winners. A few years back, I bet (no longer literally) on Crash for Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain based on nothing more than the cast list and the movie poster. When I finally watched Crash, (I had been holding out to watch the Director's Cut for my first viewing, but I finally broke down and watched the theatrical release) I was pleased to see a movie that legitimately deserved the Best Picture award.

Detective Graham Waters is having a terrible yesterday. Flashing back to yesterday from his arrival at a crime scene tonight, Waters walks through a day that is filled with political pressure, intrigue and altercations all based on ethnic differences. After making a crack at his Latina partner, discovering his mother on crack and his brother missing, Waters is pressured by the Internal Affairs Department and the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office to put away a white cop who shot and killed a black police officer.

In the same proximate area, the D.A. and his wife are carjacked by two young black hoods, who then accidentally run over a Chinese man, a record executive and his wife are pulled over while driving by a racist cop and his progressive partner, and a hispanic locksmith runs into a Persian store owner whose shop is ransacked and covered in hate speech. Over the course of two days, a collection of complex events collide various characters in circumstances that are ethnically motivated, challenged or utterly out of control.

Crash is the best, most difficult movie I have ever watched that I would like to add to my personal library. Unlike something like The House of Sand and Fog that is unrelentingly depressing and terrible to watch, Crash challenges the viewer. Yes, there is a thematical unity in Crash; EVERYTHING in this movie comes back to ethnicity. Every action and reaction in the film is motivated by a conscious awareness of differences in ethnicity and/or skin color.

But unlike many movies where there is thematic unity, Crash works because it refuses to simplify the problems, conflicts or characters. So, for example, Anthony goes on a tirade about how as a young black man in a very white neighborhood he ought to feel insecure and berates a white woman for getting nervous upon seeing him there, then he whips out a gun and steals her SUV. So, while everything is about ethnicity here, the movie both challenges and embodies some of the worst stereotypes and fears about ethnic differences, sometimes even within a single character.

Writer/director Paul Haggis makes it work and he does so by creating characters who are multifaceted. So, for example, racist Officer John Ryan would be an easy "type." He's a racist white cop in the LAPD. Talk about a stereotype. Haggis fleshes him out, though. Ryan's father is aging poorly and might have a serious illness that his HMO will not cover and in trying to relate to the workers at the HMO, who are people of color, he relates that his father was progressive, hiring minorities before it was required by law and he lost everything when the city changed the way it awarded contracts. Ryan wrongly blames people of color, but Haggis rightly makes the ethnic prejudice less monolithic.

And this is a drama in the highest sense of the word. Officer Hansen, for example, who offers the film some catharsis by rejecting the methods (and person) of Officer Ryan becomes something of a tragic figure when he tries to live up to his ideals. On the flip side, Jean comes to realize that her fear and hatred are irrational and Anthony's ideology puts him at odds with Cameron in a way that forces him to compromise.

This is a clever film, but it is not easy to watch. Not by a long shot. Early on in the movie, after being primed with a bit of speech that indicates this is a film that is going to deal a lot with ethnic issues, there is a grueling scene between Officer Ryan and Karen that is so difficult to watch it will make the viewer's stomach clench and ill. The movie is somewhat unrelenting, though there does come some catharsis. Though, even those are not simple.

Like Magnolia, there are a slew of characters who fade in and out of the movie, intersecting and crashing with one another. Most of them are given enough screentime for us to care about them and the picture works well for a film that has approximately twenty principle characters stuffed into 113 minutes.

And the acting is great. There is not a single character that is not believable portrayed. The top named stars like Sandra Bullock and Brendan Fraser are relegated to roles that do not dominate the story or the screentime, leaving lesser-known actors to shine. Jennifer Esposito gives a great supporting performance that almost instantly defines the tone of the movie. Terrence Howard portrays Cameron with a dignity that is perfect for his character.

Ryan Phillippe is great as Hansen adding subtlety with body language and eye movement in a role that could have easily devolved into a "type" as opposed to a character. Phillippe's facial expression following his ultimate character action is almost worth the price of admission to the film.

Matt Dillon is perfect as John Ryan. Dillon is creepy when appropriate, cold and mean when he is most brutal and strikes an amazing balance with humanity when forced to. Dillon wisely does not play any anger or frustration in scenes where Ryan is charged with aiding his ill father. And Dillon is utterly convincing in his portrayal of Ryan when resolving his conflict with Christine.

Chris Bridges, best known to the world as the rapper Ludacris is nothing short of amazing as Anthony. He is dynamic, articulate and delivers his lines perfectly. More than that, he embodies a character that is both educated and streetwise, carrying himself with a body language of a student and a thug alternately. Bridges has a flexibility that makes the viewer believe in the dynamics of his character.

But it is Don Cheadle who moves Crash. With the most screentime, Cheadle bears the brunt of the acting work as his character is the most consistent thread in this tapestry. Cheadle gives a performance that is consistent in the mellow tone his character portrays while encountering ingratitude, intrigue, relationship dysfunctions and problematic ethnic relations. Cheadle is emotive and believable and he is a pleasure to watch here.

Crash is a great drama that is a must-see, but it's hard to say who would enjoy watching it. It's not an enjoyable or entertaining film to watch. But it is important. It's important to watch and it's important to talk about afterward.

As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, which is available by clicking here! Please check it out!

For other movies with an emphasis on social conflict, please check out my reviews of:
Strawberry And Chocolate
Memoirs Of A Geisha
Easy A


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2009, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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