“See what that woman just did?” Anthony (Ludacris) asks his companion Peter (Larenz Tate). “That woman got colder the moment she saw us.” Spotting them from just down the street, “that woman” has clutched her handbag closer and huddled into her husband’s side as they head to their shiny black Escalade. And Anthony, already exorcised because a waitress treated them with no-tip-expecting disdain, is anticipating still more of profiling that he endures every day. Really, he says, because they’re the only black men out this evening, surveying an L.A. sidewalk full of well-heeled white folks, they’re the ones who should be scared.
Even aside from the pleasant surprise of Luda’s sharp performance (2 Fast 2 Furious did not do the man justice), this scene indicates the underlying — if uneven — intelligence of Paul Haggis’ Crash. It both repeats and flips familiar scripts. Prejudice shapes daily experience (check). Everyone is scared, everyone accepts this as the way “we” live now (check). Rich folks just have more resources to hide behind (double check). Case in point: “that woman,” who happens to be Jean (Sandra Bullock), anxious, angry wife of self-involved, telegenic D.A. Rick Cabot (Brendan Fraser), can pay to be isolated and pretend she’s safe. And of course, money doesn’t help her; it only makes her misery more conspicuous and less forgivable.
Crash opens with a car wreck, not the event but the aftermath, a scene under investigation by weary detective Graham (Don Cheadle). The film is plainly about loss, though the loss of what is less immediately obvious. Sprawling and ambitious, episodic and contrived, the movie laces together a series of stories, all concerning post-9/11 fearfulness. Called to change the locks in Jean’s home following the loss off her car, earnest young locksmith Daniel (Michael Peña, currently doing excellent work on The Shield) overhears her assertion that he looks like a gangbanger, and so, she deems him untrustworthy. The camera pauses briefly on his face, used to this abusiveness but still hurt by it.
That night, he returns to his own home to find his five-year-old daughter hiding under her bed. She’s remembering the gunshots that rang through the night in their old neighborhood, and so he bestows on her his “invisible cape,” promising it will protect her from harm (potentially precious, this scene ends up being one of the film’s most compelling, owing largely to Peña’s nuanced interaction with the child). At the same time, the Iranian shopkeeper Farhad (Shaun Toub) is afraid, following a robbery. His daughter Dorri (Bahar Soomekh) tries to calm him by purchasing a gun he can keep in a drawer, pretending for the dealer that she knows the difference between one box of ammunition and another. In both cases, security is a fantasy — in the face of random (or maybe karmic-payback) violence, you can only hope to survive.
On the other end of this spectrum are the professional protectors, the D.A. and his overworked team (including efficient assistant Karen [Nona Gaye]), homicide detectives Graham (Don Cheadle) and Ria (Jennifer Esposito), and uniforms Ryan (Matt Dillon) and his newbie partner Thomas (Ryan Phillippe). Perpetually vexed by the daily pressures of their jobs (bloody bodies, unsolvable cases, grieving family members), Ria and Graham have engaged in a fraught, if exciting, sexual relationship, their understandings of one another premised at least in part on the ways that others read their raced identities. When, for instance, Graham’s mother calls during one late night liaison, she’s worried about his missing brother, a young thug on whom she can’t help but dote. Frustrated by her singular focus, Graham tries to shock her by announcing that he has to go now, because he’s “having sex with a white woman.” This is too much for the proudly Puerto Rican Ria, who suddenly sees his blinding rage — at mom, women, whiteness, policing, and in a weirdly unfocused way, her. She can’t defend herself except by lashing out, and so the night is now upside down, a tryst turned verbal throwdown, wrought in racial epithets.
If Graham and Ria are unable to see one another except through their own expectations, on the other side of town, a parallel scenario unfolds, only more brutal. Ryan’s anger erupts in a frighteningly aggressive display. (His fury is also inspired by a parent-child breakdown, as his ailing, working class father is increasingly unable to care for himself, and the impersonal tangles of medical insurance are only exacerbating the difficulties.) He spots a Mercedes pulled over, in which a black couple — tv director Cameron (Terrence Howard) and his wife Christine (Thandie Newton) — are engaged in an after-party blow job. Undone by his own daily fears (his dad is dying in front of him, slowly and awfully), Ryan strikes back at the sight of what he takes as unearned and specifically raced privilege (the upending of the order he’s expected to work out for him). As Thomas looks on in silent and embarrassed horror, Ryan puts both husband and wife up against their car, and begins to “pat down” the wife, in a manner designed to gall and demean Cameron (under guise of a search for weapons).
When Thomas later suggests that maybe, perhaps, Ryan has crossed a line, the older cop defends himself by blaming the work: “Wait till you’ve been on the job a few more years. You think you know who you are; you have no idea.” The MTV Diary allusion aside, the line speaks to Crash‘s focus even more emphatically than all the cars and car-related related dialogue. If race might define an other, it might also define a self. But if an event dislodges assumptions, you will have “no idea.”
An alternative, less intricate reading of Ryan’s rationale is this: stress and frustration make you mean and self-righteous. The problem is, such self-defensive thinking only makes you more alone and less confident. As Graham puts it at film’s start, “We’re always behind this metal and glass. It’s the sense of touch. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something.”
The metaphor is not subtle, but it is variously effective. Most of the film’s violent encounters are actual crashes, minor and major, lending it a sort of stop-and-start, traffic-patterny rhythm. This structure is exacerbated by the multi-culti casting. Generally speaking, Crash takes a “one-from-every-food-group” approach to race representation (including a mostly unseen Asian pedestrian hit by a car and dragged beneath).
This schematic reductiveness is strangely exacerbated by the cars. In L.A., after all, cars mean too much. Emblems of status and mobile privacy, cars are also perennial sites for conflict, especially if you’re “driving while black.” From carjackings to cops stopping suspects to fender benders to severe wrecks, the film is full of car-oriented encounters, each leading to another, and all coming back to the very first one, a crime scene investigated by Graham. A crime scene that will mean too much for him.
Crash is not so egregiously naïve or dully well-intentioned as, say, Grand Canyon, and some moments are genuinely moving. Still, the lesson offered here seems geared toward those viewers who were surprised by the Rodney King video, that is, people who don’t regularly deal with such cultural, legal, and emotional collisions. For others, its machinations will grind, instances of trying too hard to point out what’s obvious: people are scared.