Los Angeles police detective Graham (Don Cheadle) sits in his car with his girlfriend and partner Ria (Jennifer Esposito) and observes that people in the city are so paranoid about making contact with their fellow citizens, not even brushing past each other in the street, that perhaps the only way they can communicate is when they crash their car into another's. For Graham has just had a bump in his own car and Ria, after telling him he may have had a bump to the head as well, goes out to remonstrate with the Chinese woman they collided with. It just so happens that they are at the crime scene he was heading for, and as the argument descends into racist language Graham walks away to view the body, not knowing he has a tragic surprise waiting...
Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia was much respected, with its deft combination of plotlines leading up to an unusual fall from the sky, and judging by Crash, it particularly impressed director and writer (with Robert Moresco) Paul Haggis. A rumination on racism and the way fate pulls people together, it weaves the lives of various characters together to illustrate how prejudiced they are, and how they actually have to rely on one another to get through. Or at least, that's the idea, but with most of the characters talking in speeches, the film looks more like a polemic Haggis is conducting with an allegedly misguided audience.
He did, however, assemble a superb cast who never put a foot wrong in their intepretations. Haggis is careful to let even the most distasteful roles show their humanity, so racist cop Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon) is seen to be deeply concerned about the plight of his elderly father who he lives with, even after we have seen him humiliate a married, black couple - Cameron (Terrence Howard) and Christine (Thandie Newton) - who were driving back from a party the night before Graham and Ria's accident. Ryan pulled them over and subjected Christine to an over-intimate body search, just for the power he feels over her.
All the way through, characters live up to their stereotypes in a way that suggests Haggis is confronting us with our less than flattering views of races other than our own. Early on, a rich couple - District Attorney Rick (Brendan Fraser) and his wife Jean (Sandra Bullock) - act nervously when they walk by a pair of young black men, Anthony (Ludacris) and Peter (Larenz Tate), and Anthony takes umbrage. He also produces a gun and takes their car, thereby reinforcing the fears that the white couple harbour about them. This means more tirades on both sides, with Anthony despising not only the whites but the blacks who steal from and and attack other blacks, and Jean raging about her treatment and seeing it as indicative of the typical African American.
Coincidence takes a part in the narrative, which is necessary to bring everyone together. But too often Crash appears contrived, and the constant complaining of the characters, at great length, about the divides in society becomes wearying. After a while you want to say, alright, we get the idea. And what are we to make of the way some plotlines resolve themselves? Cameron eventually rejects his well mannered middle class lifestyle to almost get shot by the police: is he driven by the racism or is he reverting to type? And what of the previously non-racist cop (Ryan Phillippe) who lets his unexpected prejudices get the better of him in one tragic second? Is he doing the same? What reaction does Haggis want - a sad shake of the head and the admission, "you're right, I am racist", or worse, an enthusiastic nod and a proud, "you're right, I am racist"? The wooly, philosophical ending provides few satisfying answers. Music by Mark Isham.