4 stars


22nd August 2005

And so back to reality. This summer we've been treated to Emo planes, chocolate paedophiles and runaway clones, which, although varied in quality, all had one thing in common - escapism. No one loves getting lost in a film more than me, but every once in a while it takes a hard-hitting movie like Crash to shake you out of your daze to pay attention to subjects that really matter. Take the issue of race, for example; with George and Tony intent on making an enemy of the world and the British police force taking pot shots at vaguely foreign-looking people on the underground, racism has never been a more prevalent issue. Paul Haggis' directorial debut tackles the issue in a thoughtful and sensitive manner, without pointing fingers or preaching - in short, it's one of the best films of the year so far.

Although the movie begins and ends with two fender benders, the two hours in between share certain similarities with a crash themselves - handfuls of plot strands are smashed together with great force, characters' lives inescapably fused together, storylines mashed into one, mangled and inseparable. A veritable pile-up of characters fight for your attention; there's Sandra Bullock and Brendan Fraser as the posh white suburban couple who are carjacked by two black youths; the Latino locksmith that changes their locks; Matt Dillon's ignorant cop and his rookie partner Ryan Phillippe; Don Cheadle's rough-around-the-edges cop and his Hispanic girlfriend, plus a Persian shopkeeper and his family, to name but a few. With such a overwhelming cast you might be forgiven for thinking it'd be too much to take on board, but with shades of Altman in force, the stories all intertwine and merge to create a truly impressive narrative.

If Crash highlights anything, it's the fact that racism is far from being a simple matter of black and white. While it would be easy to take a stance against white on black racism (or indeed the other way around), Haggis doesn't take sides or proclaim to have an answer for complete racial harmony; he prefers to show the shades of grey in between and how different levels of racism are rife in different levels of society. On a base level, there's the obvious ignorance of Dillon's greasy police officer, while on the other side of the coin, you have Sandra Bullock and her racial discrimination born out of fear. Cheadle's cop (a black man himself, in case you haven't noticed) is faced with the moral dilemma of locking up a white officer, when he knows the black DI he killed was actually a criminal - to arrest him would simply be a politically motivated action, a newspaper headline to show that the force is 'doing its bit' in the fight against racism. Political correctness and ethnic favouritism are portrayed in just as bad a light as more traditional racism.

Haggis throws the characters several curveballs; moral quandaries where the solution is never abundantly clear. What does more harm in the long run - Dillon's cop and his over-eager frisking of Thandie Newton's society girl, or fellow officer Phillippe's reluctance to step in and do something about it? As the arresting officer's hands run up and down Newton's lithe figure, he gives her partner two options; either get angry and get taken to the station as a result, or apologise and get let off for a warning they don't deserve. The answer he gives doesn't matter, it's the fact that there is no right answer to give - either willingly become a victim, or suffer for your indignation. It's characteristic of Haggis' screenplay to present a situation where it's not the characters actions that matter, more the motivation behind them that resonates.

While it's certainly admirable that Haggis has steered clear of any easy answers, his attempt to always show both sides of the story often gives you the impression that Crash is going round in circles - apparently, everyone in L.A. is a racist, whether they know it or not. Black or white, Asian or Latino; it seems every victim of a hate crime is a victim themselves, and although their actions are never excused, you do sometimes get the feeling that many character arcs end a little too conveniently, with each main player getting their own personal redemption or downfall in the name of telling a good story. At first glance, Dillon's cop is pig-headed and vile, yet later on it's discovered that his father lost his job because of ethnic quota filling, which, in his head at least, gives him just cause for his actions. In a film that treads on eggshells trying not to upset the balance, not one character is just an out and out racist.

Where his previous screenplay, Million Dollar Baby, was at times mawkish and a little too concerned about gunning for the killer blow, Crash is a real slow burner. The tension starts off on the back boiler and slowly starts to heat up, culminating in at least three real heart-in-mouth moments that pack more emotional punch than Clint's Oscar-winner did in its entirety. With the narrative set against a strikingly beautiful L.A. backdrop (with some heavy Michael Mann visual cues), Crash is a film that looks as crisp and clean as its story is fresh. Powerful, intelligent and impeccably performed all round, don't make the mistake of rubber-necking Crash as you pass it by - it's far and away the most vital film of the year, and is almost certain to nab Haggis a few statues of his own next year.

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