L.A.’s Race-and Traffic-Problems Face Off in Paul Haggis’ Crash

Paul Haggis’ Crash, from a screenplay by Mr. Haggis and Bobby Moresco, was first conceived as a film project back in 2000. Five years later, its release has proved unexpectedly relevant to the pathology of Los Angeles: In the last 10 weeks, seven apparently unmotivated freeway shootings have taken place, four of them fatal. (According to Verlyn Klinkenborg in The New York Times’ Editorial Observer column of May 3, 2005, this is the highest number of road-rage killings in the area since 1987, when five people were killed.)

However, the story of Crash had its genesis in a different sort of crime experienced by Mr. Haggis, as he explains in his writer-director’s statement: “I have lived and worked in Los Angeles for over twenty-five years now, and like anyone else living in an urban environment for that length of time, I thought I was relatively aware of problems involving race and class. Then one night, while coming out of a video store in my neighborhood, I was car-jacked at gunpoint. That event, a collision of two worlds that normally don’t intersect, forced me out of my complacency. I began considering the lives of my attackers. I became acutely aware of my own urban isolation. After 9/11, the subject seemed, to me, to become even more urgent, and I felt compelled to start writing what would eventually become Crash.”

I’m sorry, but Mr. Haggis’ recollection strikes me as so saturated with white liberal guilt over race and class injustice that he must inevitably err on the side of a tactful political correctness. And sure enough, Crash is much harder on its ruling-class whites-especially its hired guns in the LAPD-than on the lower-caste minorities in their midst.

Curiously, Crash is not about road rage as such, but rather a whole range of fatal and near-fatal inter-group misunderstandings. The old joke about Los Angeles being car-crazy and freeway-happy ends up providing a faintly comic sociological subtext in this movie about a sprawling city in which the races and classes are separated from each other until they hit the freeways; the only possible occasion for social interaction is a car crash, and it’s at that precise moment that the atomized members of our whole gun-crazy, segregated society intersect.

The first scene in Crash finds Graham (Don Cheadle), an LAPD detective, and his Latina partner and girlfriend, Ria (Jennifer Esposito), driving up to investigate not an auto accident, but rather a crime scene in which a dead body has been discovered. Before getting out of the car to look at the corpse lying in an empty field, Graham delivers some moody sentiments about people in Los Angeles being so isolated behind barriers of “steel and glass” that they crash into each other just to feel something. From the outset, Graham is therefore the closest thing we have in the film to a raisonneur, though he is far from being the audience’s point-of-view character.

The scene ends with Graham discovering that the dead man is a member of his family-though Graham doesn’t have a clue as to who killed him, or why; all he can do is stare with the shock of recognition at the corpse at his feet, before the film abruptly flashes back to the previous afternoon.

In a busy downtown shopping district, two young black men, Anthony (Chris Bridges, a.k.a. Ludacris) and Peter (Larenz Tate) are arguing amiably in a white neighborhood about the extent to which they are feared and loathed by white people as potential criminals. Anthony is the more paranoid of the two, suggesting that white folks make bus windows extra-large so as to humiliate the black riders inside, too poor to own a car of their own. Peter scoffs at Anthony’s diatribes, and the two of them function as an impromptu stand-up comedy team. The ultimate joke, however, is that they’re both armed thugs who seize the opportunity to carjack a Lincoln Navigator from a white couple emerging from a reception. The upscale victims are Rick, the Los Angeles district attorney (Brendan Fraser), and Jean, his perpetually hysterical and spoiled rich-bitch wife (Sandra Bullock).

From that point on, much more time and sympathy are lavished on the two criminals than on the two victims; the white couple is caricatured as a pair of racist hypocrites, among other things for being excessively upset about being carjacked at gunpoint. Rick is immediately preoccupied with the effect that the crime might have on his upcoming election campaign, fearing the loss of both the black vote (if he’s perceived as overreacting) and the white law-and-order vote (if he’s perceived as underreacting). For her part, Jean exudes racist venom by complaining out loud that the black locksmith called in to change the locks on their doors is likely to slip duplicates of the new keys to his fellow gang members. The pained expression of injured innocence on the face of the locksmith certainly helps to demonize Jean in the audience’s eyes.

Meanwhile, a short-tempered Iranian shopkeeper named Farhad (Shaun Toub) tries to buy a gun to protect his store in the aftermath of 9/11. After the obstreperous Iranian has been ejected from the store, his wife completes the purchase. In short, we are set up for the additional irony of one oppressed minority member blowing his fuse at another, again an innocent black locksmith. Here, the misunderstanding seems more a problem of language than one of race or class. The Iranian has been driven past the breaking point by arriving at his store after 9/11, only to find it completely trashed by his patriotic, Arab-hating neighbors.

The biggest irony of all involves two LAPD policemen sharing a patrol car. Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon) is aware of his racist feelings but can’t suppress them. His younger partner, Officer Hanson (Ryan Phillippe), is so disgusted by Ryan’s behavior that he requests a transfer after one particularly outrageous incident involving an upscale black couple, Cameron (Terrence Howard) and Christine (Thandie Newton), who happen to be driving a Lincoln Navigator of the same model as the D.A’s carjacked vehicle.

Ryan doesn’t need this excuse to pull them over-he apparently sees Christine performing fellatio on her husband as he’s driving. We don’t see it, but Ryan is sure he did, and so he goes about teaching the couple a particularly malevolent lesson in police procedure. First, he asks Cameron to get out of the car and submit to a series of humiliating sobriety tests. Cameron complies, fully aware of the dangerous malice in Ryan’s attitude. More than a little drunk, Christine rashly gets out of the car and begins chewing Ryan out, even as her husband angrily orders her to stay in the car. This gives Ryan the pretext to conduct a body search of Christine, feeling for drugs in her most intimate recesses. This is a further humiliation for Cameron, whose streetwise prudence when confronting a racist cop leaves him paralyzed and unable to help his wife. When Ryan is through with his female “suspect,” he lets them both return to their car with a warning.

Up to this point, Ryan is clearly the worst human being we have met in this multi-character plot. But Mr. Haggis and Mr. Moresco hasten to give him something of a sympathetic backstory, a service performed for none of the other characters except the much more likable Graham. First, Ryan is shown to be a caring son to his painfully afflicted father, the victim of a misdiagnosed prostate condition for which the son cannot get either information or compensation from the black supervisor at their H.M.O., whom Ryan unwisely insults as an unqualified beneficiary of affirmative action. Still, this isn’t enough to fully mitigate the horror of Ryan’s evil sexual aggression against Christine. By an almost incredible coincidence, however, he later finds himself in the position to rescue Christine from a burning car at the risk of his own life, and he does so bravely and nobly. Of course, while it’s true that there is good and bad in each of us, in the end a feeble contrivance is still a feeble contrivance.

And that isn’t the end of the film’s improbabilities. Remember Officer Hanson, the good cop to Ryan’s bad-ass? After he manages to ditch Ryan and get assigned his own patrol car, he finds himself in a position to save Cameron, now wildly reckless after not only being mercilessly taunted for his lack of manhood by Christine, but also after losing an argument on racial stereotyping at his studio with his cynical white director.

Cameron thus finds himself provoking a new team of racist, trigger-happy cops, only to be saved by Hanson’s lucky intervention. Hanson assures the provoked cops that he will take Cameron into his own custody and then promptly releases him, thus enabling a puzzled Cameron to drive home to safety. Later, however, when Hanson is driving home in his own car, he picks up a hitchhiker-none other than Peter, one of the carjackers we met at the beginning of the film, whom Hanson mistakenly kills after he thinks that Peter is reaching for a gun in his pocket. It turns out to be a tragic mistake: What Peter was really reaching for was a religious medallion identical to the one hanging over Hanson’s dashboard.

Thus Crash starts off with two gun-toting carjackers stealing a vehicle and ends up with both men being morally whitewashed: Peter by being unjustly killed, and Anthony by performing a generous deed that has to be seen to be disbelieved. And speaking of disbelief, the film manages to keep the hotheaded Iranian shopkeeper from killing anyone by a stroke of what I can only describe as fairy-tale magic. Again, one has to see it to disbelieve it.

I’m not familiar with the songs of the rapper known as Ludacris and so I can’t comment on the aptness of his rapper-like character, but there’s a clear indication in the dialogue written for him, and in his almost pacific behavior when he encounters Cameron, that both the actor and the character (as well as the film) are especially outraged by black-on-black violence, one of the ugly realities of urban life everywhere. But Crash ends up ducking this issue, despite all the frank, often hyper-articulate dialogue surrounding it.

The large, alphabetically billed cast does as well as it can with the purposively fragmented plot in search of a deeper, allegorical reality. Mr. Cheadle and Mr. Dillon are especially effective with the two most motivationally developed parts in the production. But Ms. Bullock, sadly, is wasted in a one-dimensional, mostly one-note role. Alas, I was one of the very few critics who wasn’t enchanted by Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-sweeping Million Dollar Baby, for which Mr. Haggis wrote the screenplay (adapted from two short stories by longtime fight manager Jerry Boyd), and I seem to find myself on my own once again in demeaning Mr. Haggis’ well-intentioned efforts in Crash. This is not to say that either Million Dollar Baby or Crash is entirely lacking in merit; it’s just that, at some crucial point in both films, I began saying to myself, “Is this too much or not enough?” Mr. Haggis clearly has talent, and he does so many things so well that he makes me wonder why both Million Dollar Baby and Crash left me feeling more depressed than exhilarated. About the only explanation I can find is that, at some point in both films, I found Mr. Haggis’ moralistic tales too facile for my taste.

House-Sitting

Ki-duk Kim’s 3-Iron, from his own screenplay, can best be described as an uncanny spiritual exploration of the unlikeliest of great loves. It’s a worthy addition to Mr. Kim’s previous excursions into the eccentricities of romantic passion, The Isle (2000) and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring (2003). Speaking with the authority of almost complete ignorance, I suspect that Mr. Kim is the most original and venturesome of South Korea’s filmmakers.

In 3-Iron, Mr. Kim’s young, agile and alienated hero, Tae-suk (Hee Jae), has perfected an ingenious, violence-free scam by which he sticks fliers on the doors of strangers’ apartments and, if the flier isn’t removed within 24 hours, picks the apartment’s lock, makes himself at home and then-and here is the switch-performs household tasks such as laundry, cleaning and small repairs to repay his hosts for their unwitting generosity. Throughout the early part of the film, Tae-suk’s wordless, furtive M.O. virtually transforms him into a figure from the days of silent film.

And then, one day, he invades a mansion that he thinks is unoccupied and goes about his usual business, only to discover that he is being silently watched by a beautiful but shy young woman, Sun-hwa (Seung-yeon Lee), who instinctively senses that he means her no harm. When her husband, Min-kyu (Hyuk-ko Kwon), arrives home unexpectedly, Tae-suk hides in another room long enough to realize that the wife is being regularly abused by her husband.

Eventually, Tae-suk is impelled to intervene by hitting the husband with golf balls from an expertly wielded 3-iron. And after the husband has been rendered unconscious by this bizarre assault, Tae-suk and Sun-hwa flee the mansion and resume Tae-suk’s housebreaking routine, this time as a team. Gradually they fall in love, and during one of their incursions, they come upon an elderly man dead in his upstairs bedroom, where he died in his sleep from natural causes. They carefully bury the body in the garden and conduct a solemn ceremony. They then proceed to settle down in the dead man’s house, recklessly ignoring the frantic phone calls from his son, until one day the son arrives in person, discovers the trespassers and calls the police. Tae-suk and Sun-hwa are both arrested; she is returned to her unhappy marriage, while he is imprisoned for his earlier attack on the husband.

What happens next requires a leap of faith to make sense, but the great love stays alive despite all the earthly obstacles in its path. The grace and visual eloquence of this strangely kinetic tale could have come only from an Asian auteur. Mr. Kim’s poem, spoken in the film by Sun-hwa, serves as a kind of director’s statement summing up the very essence of 3-Iron:

We are all empty houses

Waiting for someone

To open the lock and set us free.

One day, my wish comes true.

A man arrives like a ghost

And takes me away from my confinement.

And I follow, without doubts, without reserve,

Until I find my new destiny.

Comments

  1. Lada Cook says:

    Ah… the locksmith is not “black”. And he does not have a “pained expression of injured innocence”. And it is not the Persian man’s wife who completes the purchase but the daughter. You see the wife later, she’s about 20-30 years older. Your review is full of nonsense mistakes like that. What if you would actually try and watch the movie before you pass judgement on it? Biased, pathetic.

    1. I agree, while the film is flawed this quickly whipped together review is even more flawed.  Mr. Sarris also refers to the shopkeeper as Iranian early in the review.  Did you even watch that scene, the whole point of his character is to show that after 9/11 many Americans thought of anyone from the middle east as Arab when in a later scene they establish that he is Persian. This review was piss poor quality and shows an utter lack of understanding of the most basic plot points in the film. There is room for intelligent dissection of this film but this review is anything but that.