The team behind Paul Haggis‘ Crash said they were out to polarize people and, well, mission accomplished. This film made its share of both “ten best” and “ten worst” list for last year. You don’t divide critical opinion to that degree without swinging for the fences and, if Crash is not quite a home run, it definitely has warning track power.
Crash takes an Altman-esque look at the often bumpy interrelations between persons of different ethic backgrounds living in Los Angeles. Using a large, diverse cast, the film examines how they are all, in turn, victims of other people’s preconceived notions about their particular ethnicity and then turn around and, without thinking, inflict the same treatment on others.
The film does not, as I think some have suggested, excuse bigotry because “everybody does it.” It does, however, understand a fundamental truth about our human prejudices that other films have not. I don’t share Robert Ebert’s optimistic view that Crash is a film that can “make [its] audience better people.” To me, Crash simply acknowledges the basic truth that prejudice toward those we view as “outsiders” or just different from us is an elemental part of the human condition. We can suppress it, learn to look beyond it, but it is encoded into our DNA by millions of years of evolution, a vestige of the territorial instincts that helped our ancestors survive but now do us more harm than good.
The film’s strength is that does not look at these prejudices in a vacuum, but sets them into a context that helps understand why even the best of us act that way at times. When the characters in this film lash out, it is almost always in moments of frustration or stress. It’s doubtful that the district’s attorney’s wife (Sandra Bullock) would have lashed out at the locksmith had she not just been carjacked, nor would the cop (Matt Dillon) have molested the wife (Thandie Newton) of the black television producer (Terrence Howard) had he not been fighting with the HMO over his father’s medical treatment. Or maybe they would have.
If the film has any weakness, it’s the level of coincidence in the relationships between some of the characters. The movie would have been just as effective if two pairs of these characters had not turned out to be related and it would have been a lot easier to swallow.
Regardless, Crash is a movie worthy of the praise it has received. You can tell by the number of other people it has made angry.