When one first sees the movie, it seems like a pastiche of episodes from a TV police series set in Los Angeles. Instead of a linear plot, it is a tapestry of narratives that turn back in time and characters that intersect with each other over a 2-day period. The second viewing allows one to recognize the nuances and ironies that constitute Haggis' artistic ambition.
Still, at best, Crash is a meditation on racial stereotypes in Los Angeles. The film breaks no new ground, offers us no new insights, and presents no psychological challenges. Crash is a bleak film, but it takes us only a short step from the Hollywood feel good of Driving Miss Daisy, another film on race relations that was awarded an undeserved Oscar in the same year Spike Lee made the groundbreaking film Do the Right Thing.
Crash shows us the racist aspects of the American character: the stereotypes we deploy as we make our way through the challenge of living in a diverse society. Haggis' narrative does not teach us that our stereotypes are false, the 2 young black men who seem out of place in a white neighborhood and are therefore threatening are, in fact, about to car-jack the District Attorney and his frightened wife at gunpoint. In order to be re-elected, the same "politically correct" white District Attorney will suppress evidence to make a crooked black undercover officer look like a hero and the white detective who kills him look like a racist killer.
The 2 central characters in the ensemble cast are Matt Dillon, a hardened Los Angeles policeman from the lower middle class, and Thandie Newton, the emotionally intense yuppie wife of an assimilated black director. The first interaction of these 2 is when Dillon and his young partner spot the couple in their car and Dillon concludes that Newton, who he thinks is white, is performing oral sex on the black driver of the car. Miscegenation may be legal in the United States but in the mind of this racist cop it is a provocation that demands instant retribution. As Dillon will soon discover, they are husband and wife, both are light-skinned and Newton's character, who has had a few drinks, is doing exactly what Dillon had imagined. Dillon, over his partner's objection, stops the car and proceeds to assert his white supremacy by sexually molesting the woman in front of her husband as he does a "body search." Dillon's portrayed racism/sexism seems to be an essential element of his character, and that view is brutally reinforced in other scenes.
In a later interaction, Thandie Newton's character, who has displaced her rage and resentment onto her husband for tolerating her humiliation, is trapped in her overturned car after a "crash" and is within minutes of being burned to death. Dillon is the first police officer on the scene and risks his life to save the woman who despises him. Once again we see the unwanted physical intimacy as Newton's screams of hatred turn into cries of desperation. Dillon, of course, saves her life and as she is led away she looks back at the man who abused and saved her. She can only think that the racist bigot who was capable of the grossest indecency was, in this desperate situation, ready to risk his life.
How do we put the 2 aspects of Dillon's character together? Haggis has no idea; he only wants to show us that our stereotypes can be a veil of deception, that they cause cankering fissures in our character. The question that needs answering is how do we get past these stereotypes in our judgments about other people's character? Certainly the answer is not in Sandra Bullock's epiphany that her much disdained Hispanic cleaning lady is her best friend, but that may be as far as Haggis could take us and as far as the Academy is prepared to go. That epiphany has the very same poignancy as Driving Miss Daisy, where the elderly Jewish woman and her black chauffeur discover that they are each other's best friends.
Proulx may be right about what pleases the Heffalumps in the Academy; they want to be reassured but not threatened. Crash affirms yet again that a film that stretches clichés but does not break them is the formula for success in Hollywood, and this was proved on Oscar night.
Dr Stone is Touroff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry in the faculty of law and the faculty of medicine at Harvard University, Boston. He currently teaches a course called Law, Psychology and Morality: An Exploration Through Film. His collection of film reviews, Reel Insights, is to be published by the MIT Press.