Related Articles: Movies, All

Crash

Melting Pot Boils Over in City of Lost Angels

Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia told the interlocking stories of several desperately unhappy people in Hollywood, struggling to find themselves and, perhaps, some elusive dose of spiritual calm. That film ended on a magical note, as frogs fell from the Los Angeles sky in a sort of Biblical cleansing of madness and sorrow. Paul Haggis' Crash ends with a sight almost as rare, snow blanketing the city's streets while curious onlookers stare in dumbfounded amusement. It is a cathartic moment after a long, emotionally draining day for another group of wandering souls.

They are connected, some by blood, others by coincidence, but they remain divided by racial politics and their inability to see past stereotypes. The usual suspects are all present: bigoted cops, inner-city thugs and image-conscious politicians eager to swing the minority vote with a calculated photo-op. Then there's Sandra Bullock in a surprisingly forceful turn as a desperate housewife embittered by a carjacking; Don Cheadle as an investigator struggling to rescue his wayward brother; and Terrence Howard (Ray), playing a television director who's asked to make sure his actors "talk black."

Crash is teeming with characters whose prejudices are so deeply ingrained that they seem almost instinctive, but rather than present simple caricatures of villains and victims, Haggis digs below the surface to examine the roots of their hostility. They walk the streets with boulder-sized chips on their shoulders, always ready to greet a perceived slight with a stream of profanity. Tempers flare, and guns are drawn. Crash is a movie that is fascinated by that anger, where it comes from and how it can be remedied. It offers no easy answers, just a series of moving images and powerful vignettes.

There is also sharp-witted dialogue -- courtesy of Haggis, who wrote the script for Best Picture winner Million Dollar Baby -- and a strong cast to breathe life into his colorful, complicated characters. The most compelling performance comes courtesy of Matt Dillon, who plays Officer Ryan, a vile racist who, in one repugnant instance, humiliates a black man by fondling his wife during an unwarranted traffic stop.

In most movies, Ryan would be easily dismissed as a one-dimensional thug, the racist cop thrown in to illustrate a well-tread truth about institutionalized bigotry. Not here. Ryan, it turns out, is also a grieving son desperate to help his ailing father, and when he gets the bureaucratic runaround from his HMO, his rage is understandable, even poignant; that it manifests itself in an ugly diatribe is not.

And yet even for Ryan, there is redemption. So often in Crash, characters are thrust into impossibly tense, life-threatening situations that force them to step back and consider the consequences of their behavior, and when Ryan finds himself amid the wreckage of a burning car with the same woman he molested, he experiences an awakening of sorts. Does it feel contrived? No, not really. It is uplifting, and for all the ugly realities about racism in America that Crash mirrors so eloquently, its underlying message is one of hope. It's a powerful message, to be sure.

Rating 4.5 out of 5 Stars