In his provocative cinematic essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, director Thom Andersen complains that Hollywood has scrubbed away his home city's coarse texture, denying the racial and ethnic frissons that rip through its dense sprawl. On the surface, Paul Haggis' bold multi-character tapestry Crash addresses Andersen's concerns in startlingly explicit terms, presenting a city of whites, blacks, Latinos, and Asians who not only eye each other with suspicion and hate, but frequently let the epithets fly. It's rare enough for an American movie to even acknowledge the race problem, and it's rarer still for one to be constructed entirely out of the torn fabric of race relations. But is this really the movie Andersen had in mind? For all its daring and intermittent power, Crash seems destined to join other films like Gentleman's Agreement, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, and Grand Canyon among well-intentioned social dramas in which message becomes reality. Note the standard closing-credits disclaimer: Any relation to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Set over an eventful 24 hours in the lives of a dozen-plus characters, Crash opens with a minor fender-bender that immediately turns, like so many exchanges in the film, into a heated racial dispute. From there, the cycle deepens: Wealthy Los Angeles district attorney Brendan Fraser and his wife Sandra Bullock are carjacked by two black men (Ludacris and Larenz Tate), leading her to seethe over her Hispanic maid and locksmith Michael Peña. The marriage between affluent black TV director Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton erupts after racist cop Matt Dillon harasses Newton while Howard stands idle. In other developments, a trigger-happy Iranian convenience-store owner (Shaun Toub) blames a break-in on Peña's failure to fix his broken lock, a green officer (Ryan Phillippe) tries to extricate himself from partnering with Dillon, and politics intrude on Don Cheadle's investigation of a black cop's shooting death.
Two basic things drive the action in every scene of Crash: assumption and redemption. Sometimes the assumption comes from a character, sometimes from the audience, but it inevitably results in a complete (and increasingly predictable) reversal of expectations. That leads to the redemption part, when previously despicable bigots display deep reserves of courage and compassion. Haggis, who wrote the fine adapted screenplay for Million Dollar Baby, embeds Crash's script so deeply in allegory that every revelation feels manipulative and programmatic, in spite of some terrific individual scenes and performances. Just because a movie is about racial politics doesn't mean that they should dictate it.