A year after being nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for the film that won Best Picture (Million Dollar Baby), Paul Haggis tried his hand at writing as well as directing Crash and this time would take home the Best Picture Oscar for himself, along with the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. This was the last Best Picture winner that I had never seen, and I won’t necessarily say that I was looking forward to it. The reviews that I’d heard from friends and peers were mixed at best, and few people that I spoke with thought that this film was particularly exceptional. I was also not particularly looking forward to it because it had an ensemble cast and it’s one of those films that has seemingly unrelated characters all come together near the end around a single theme. This style of film making was popular around the first decade or so of the 21st Century, particularly with romantic comedies like Love Actually (2003), He’s Just Not That Into You (2009), Valentine’s Day (2010) and New Year’s Eve (2011). In fact, Crash is the only film that I can think of other then 2006 Best Picture nominee Babel that’s told in this style of film making that isn’t a romantic comedy.
So perhaps it was my low expectations due to the mixed reviews and not being a fan of that type of storytelling, but I was tremendously and pleasantly surprised by Crash. I thought it was a dramatic and intense film, and I was affected by the characters and their emotional journeys. To be sure, this is not a film without flaws, as there are plenty. Ironically I think that a lot of the flaws have to do with the script, and Haggis, who is primarily knows as a screenwriter actually directed this film much better than he wrote it. Just to get the flaws out of the way, I felt like the racism angle was way too on the nose. I understand that racism and racial tensions are the spine of the film, but there were times where the characters’ dialogue about it was just too in our collective faces. To a degree, I felt like I was being talked down to on the subject, like it was an elementary subject that Haggis didn’t think we could understand. That’s unfortunate because there are actually some examples spread over the course of the film where Haggis is able to make his point in more subtle, yet equally powerful ways.
For example, there is a scene where Police Detective Graham Waters (Don Cheadle) is having sex with his partner Ria (Jennifer Esposito), who happens to be half white and half Mexican. As they’re making love the phone rings and Ria tells Waters not to answer it, but he feels obligated to. Sure enough, it’s his mother (who is mentally disabled in some ambiguous way), and he speaks with her for a couple of uncomfortable moments before telling her that he can’t talk now because he’s having sex with a white woman. This offends Ria as well because she’s half Mexican, but he tells her that he said it to make his mother angry. It’s a very subtle way to get the point across, but it works very well.
Another strong example happens in two, well actually three parts. Officer John Ryan (Matt Dillon) is a racist police officer, and along with his more enlightened partner Officer Tom Hansen (Ryan Phillipe) pull over an SUV being driven by black film director Cameron Thayer (Terrance Howard) when it looks as though his wife Christine (Thandie Newton), who is a little drunk, is going down on him while he’s driving. Ryan harasses Thayer mercilessly and frisks Christine to the point of molesting her. Recognizing that he has no power in this situation, Thayer apologizes to Ryan for any wrong-doing he might have done and Ryan lets them go. This precipitates an argument between Thayer and Christine when they get home with her ashamed of him for not protecting her and him mad at her for not recognizing that there was nothing he could have done. The next time we see Thayer he’s on the set, directing an African American actor. Satisfied with the take, Thayer calls lunch until the producer (Tony Danza) approaches him with concerns that the actor didn’t sound “black enough”. Sensing again that he’s powerless in this relationship, Thayer calls everyone back from lunch to re-shoot the scene. Christine shows up during the lunch break to try and talk about what happened the previous night, but now Thayer is feeling doubly frustrated as well as emasculated. He yells at her and sends her away.
On his way home later that day, Thayer is the target of an attempted carjacking by Anthony (Ludacris) and Peter (Larenz Tate), but this time Thayer is not taking it lying down. Anthony and Peter pull their guns as Thayer fights back, and suddenly there are cops on the scene. Anthony gets in the car to try and get away, but Thayer gets in after him, and shoves him over and starts driving with the police in pursuit. They finally stop in a cul-de-sac and Thayer hides Anthony’s gun in his pocket. One of the cops happens to be Hansen and he recognizes Thayer. After a tense confrontation where it looks like Thayer is destined to be gunned down by the cops, Hansen diffuses the situation and gets the other cops to stand down while sending Thayer home. Thayer drives Anthony, who had been hiding in the front, to a street corner and gives him his gun and lets him out. He then tells Anthony that he’s embarrassed by him and that Anthony is also embarrassing himself.
Meanwhile Christina has been in a terrible car accident and Ryan happens to be one of the first cops on the scene. Christine’s car is upside down and she’s barely conscious. Ryan recognizes her almost immediately and she recognizes him as well. She starts screaming at him that she doesn’t want him to be the one who rescues her, but he’s the only one there and her car is leaking gasoline close to another car that’s on fire. After a mighty struggle Ryan manages to pull Christine out of the car just before it explodes. He wraps her in a blanket and helps her to safety, and there is an uncomfortable peace between them.
During all of these scenes we are shown the issues of race and racism, as well as black on black crime and its affects on both the perpetrator and the victim. What’s interesting about the whole film as well is that the racial tensions don’t just reside between blacks and whites. There are story lines in the film involving tensions between Hispanics and blacks, Asians and blacks, Hispanics and whites, and even Hispanics and Persians. It is this last conflict that brought out one of the most intense and emotionally disturbing scenes in the film. It was also one of the best written and best set up scenes in the film, and it involves Daniel the locksmith (Michael Pena), his 6-year old daughter and Farhad, the Persian shop owner. I’m not going to tell you what happens, but it literally made me cry out, “Oh my god!” before the scene had a very emotional conclusion.
I just relayed a couple of the diverse story lines in this film. There are more than a half-dozen separate story lines that start out seemingly unrelated but intersect like a spider web over the course of the film. For the most part I feel like Haggis did a good job of bringing them all together at the end in a way that was relatively seamless, although there were a couple of things that felt tacked on, and there were a couple of story lines that were left unresolved. Ryan has spent the film trying to get a competent doctor to look at his father, who seems to be having prostate problems, but the last time we see the two of them, his father is on the toilet and merely shakes his head no. We also never see Christina again after her accident. We don’t know what happened to her or to Thayer, but at least Thayer gets some redemption at the end of his story. There is another story line involving Jean Cabot (Sandra Bullock) and her husband Rick (Brendan Fraser), who happens to be District Attorney. They were the first victims of Anthony and Peter, and it seems to confirm some deep seeded racism within Jean. She battles it the entire story, but we never get any real resolution for her either.
Perhaps the lack of resolution for many of these characters was a conscious choice by Haggis. There is, after all, on real resolution in real life. You just keep on living until the end, and you get the sense for a lot of the characters in this film, that even though they’ve had these potentially life-changing events happen to them, they’re still going to continue to live the same lives they’ve been living. All of these characters are on a sad carousel that spins in one direction and none of them are ever going to get off.
I’ve spoke a few times about endings and how a film’s ending can completely change your impression of it. A strong ending can sometimes save a weak film and likewise a weak ending can ruin an otherwise fine movie. The ending of Crash was for the most part depressing and a downer. As mentioned, there isn’t a ton of resolution, and I can only think of one story line that has a happy ending. The rest are ambiguous at best and tragic at worst. I think that lack of resolution and the general feeling of malaise at the end of the picture, sours peoples’ view on it, and that is too bad because this is a fine film. This is a film that is intense and dramatic and has wonderful performances by all of the actors. It’s not a perfect film, but it is a film that is worthy of your time.
Did the Academy get it right?
I’m inclined to say that they did, but only because it was such a weak year. This film doesn’t win Best Picture in any other year, and certainly in any year five years either side of it. Going into the ceremony, I recall that most people were predicting Brokeback Mountain would be the winner, and Ang Lee did take home the Oscar for Best Director. It’s a beautiful film to look at, and it portrayed a homosexual relationship in a way that hadn’t been seen before in mainstream American cinema. Socially it was a very important film, but I found the story to be slow moving and to be perfectly honest, I find Brokeback Mountain to be rather self-indulgent. Capote was another good film nominated that year and featured a stunning performance by the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Copote during the time in his life when he was writing and researching his masterpiece In Cold Blood. It’s a good film that is layered and complex, and one of the better bio-pics that I’ve seen. I certainly would have considered voting for it in 2005. Good Night and Good Luck was a film about the journalist Edward R. Murrow and the stance that he took against Senator McCarthy that ultimately brought down the senator and put an end to the communist witch hunting that was going on in the 1950’s. It was an interesting film, shot in black and white with no music. It was like watching a news report or a documentary. I applaud the film for approaching the story in a different style, but it wasn’t good enough to be Best Picture. Finally, there was Munich, a film directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Eric Bana as an Israeli Special Forces operative tasked with assassinating all of the people involved in killing the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games. This is an action film that is intriguing and filled with tension as Bana’s character doesn’t know if he needs to be more afraid of the Palestinians he’s supposed to kill or the Israelis who’ve charged him with the task. It’s another one that I might have voted for, but I think my lack of decisiveness is more a reflection on the lack of any of these films standing apart from the others rather than consistent greatness among them. Crash was a deserving winner, but it was a weak winner in a weak year.