By Marc S. Sanders
Paul Haggis’ vignette themed script for Crash should not have won Best Screenplay. The film he directed should not have won Best Picture. Could it be that because this picture is masked as that special movie with that especially poignant message that it got the recognition I don’t think it ever deserved? I can appreciate the attempt at bringing hot button social issues like racism and injustice to light, but it does not need to be as immaturely contrived as this picture.
Crash occurs over two days within the city of modern day Los Angeles. A select group of characters of different social classes and ethnicities are covered, and the film circumvents back and forth among their perspectives. For the most part, all of these people have major social hang-ups with people outside their race. The first example shows us that if a white woman who is simply cold on a winter night hugs her husband tightly for some warmth, apparently a couple of black men will automatically believe this woman is fearful of their approach.
Especially today, I know that prejudice exists, but to this extreme and this contrived…I’m not sure. I guess I’m not sure because I have not experienced it enough to be convinced yet. When I read a friend’s testimony of falling victim to racial prejudice I lean towards believing everything they tell me. I guess it’s this movie, Crash, that left me feeling dubious and maybe that’s because the circumstances seem way too forced.
A racist cop (Matt Dillon) will pull over a well to do Muslim man (Terrence Howard) driving a high priced SUV and perform a sobriety test for no reason. Then the cop will deliberately frisk the man’s wife (Thandie Newton) with digital penetration. The next day, it’ll just happen to be that this woman will have no choice but to be rescued from a burning car by this same racist cop. Now I’m supposed to believe that the racist cop is not so bad, and the woman learns to become more tolerant. Well gee, thank heavens for coincidences!
The Muslim man (a television show director) gets car jacked the following day, and in a tense pull over moment he’s mistaken as the criminal. Fortunately, the partner of the racist cop (Ryan Phillipe) is there to subdue the situation. I’m sorry, but life doesn’t work out to be this tidy. Call me cynical, but more often than not we are not given a second chance at first impressions.
One of the real car jackers (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) gets a moment of clarity and suddenly he’s generously giving out his last forty dollars to a group of Asian people being held in a van for human trafficking. Forgive me. If I want to begin respecting this car jacker who has held multiple people at gun point and even runs over a man, only to toss him out on the drive up to the Emergency Room, I’ll be more apt to do so if the criminal turns himself in.
I dunno. Maybe I’ve got a personal issue with Crash. It could not be more apparently preachy in how it patronizes me to simply understand the seething hate and criminal violations of its characters. I’m supposed to empathize with the racist cop because his ill father can’t get the health care he’s entitled to? I’m supposed to understand the prejudicial anger that the WASP wife (Sandra Bullock) of a District Attorney (Brendan Frasier) expresses because she no longer trusts her dedicated Hispanic housekeeper or the locksmith (Michael Pena) changing the locks on their house following a car jacking?
No. Paul Haggis didn’t earn that response from me in almost all of the short story scenarios his film offers. Maybe it’s because I tend to compartmentalize my episodes. I like to think that I don’t allow one experience with one kind of person cloud my judgement on the next person I encounter. A waiter can totally screw up my order and can even mouth off to me in a heated moment. Yet, I’ll return to the restaurant on another occasion because it’s likely I’ll run into a different waiter.
Haggis depicts people who appear to have a blanket opinion of other people with different backgrounds. These are all extremely prejudiced people with next to no understanding of where each of them stem from. An angry Persian man (Shaun Toub) puts blame on the locksmith after his convenience store is ransacked. The locksmith was only trying to explain that the back door needed to be replaced. The Persian refused to listen because his English is limited. So he just gets angry and curses the locksmith out. Haggis opts to insert a language barrier between the two men to serve up an eventual tense and dramatic moment in a neighborhood driveway with a loaded gun and a little girl. A loaded gun and a little girl! Yup, I think they teach these are the true ingredients for effective drama on the first day of screenwriting class. Again, it all comes about a little too forced.
The conveniences and ironies that bubble up at times are surprising. “Oh that guy is that guy’s brother! I see.” Things like that. However, I don’t think that is necessarily the strength of the picture.
In a film like Magnolia, we are treated to the vignettes of a handful of people too. However, not every single one of those people are sketched by means of their prejudiced natures. They are drawn by a variety of different elements whether it be a traumatic past or an inclination to do good. Then it’s kind of fun to uncover how each player is connected to one another.
In Crash, the players are only connected by the hate they carry within themselves, and Paul Haggis forces a redemption upon most of them with small gestures or a line of dialogue or the purity of a welcome snowfall to close out the film. Sorry, life is lot more messy and complicated than that. I guess I’m saying I may have learned a lot more about human nature from a downpour of frogs than a downpour of snow.