“In LA, nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. It’s the sense of touch. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other just so we can feel something.” So goes the opening voiceover from Don Cheadle’s brow-battered cop in this gritty drama from Million Dollar Baby scripter Paul Haggis. It is rarely so obvious again. Class, waste and, primarily, race are explored, but while Crash has been criticised by some in the US as being an issue- or message-movie (as if taking issue or having a message is in itself some great sin), it’s primarily a gripping drama. And its message, such as it is, is not hectoring or easy or trite. It suggests we are all racists.
Matt Dillon is superb – the stand-out in a stellar ensemble cast. “You don’t like me, that’s fine. I’m a prick,” his bigoted cop tells a black healthcare worker. What makes the performance so great is Dillon is happy for us to believe this. He never panders to the camera for a moment. The kerbside bodysearch of Thandie Newton, as her husband (the exceptional Terrence Howard) watches on impotent, is excruciating. And Dillon never flinches. Like Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking, he inhabits the character and trusts some humanity will emerge. “You think you know who you are?” he growls at Ryan Phillippe’s rookie rozzer. “You have no idea.” It’s troubling because it’s true. Crash asks us to question our easy assumptions. Dillon’s cop has his reasons, however skewed; Phillippe hasn’t lived yet. And he really does not know what he is capable of.
No one here is quite what they seem. And everyone – white, black, hispanic, Arab (sorry, Persian) – is ruled by their own prejudice. That the constant reversals and don’t-believe-what-you-see schtick doesn’t become tiresome is down to a cast that universally delivers – from a terrifically chilly Sandra Bullock to the charismatic blabbermouth Chris Bridges (aka rap star Ludacris) – and Haggis’ controlled direction. In and out of each scene with clipped efficiency, he never allows the themes to weigh down the action or lingers on coincidences so long as to snap credulity.
Only as everything is tied up does the film become a little too cute, overstretched given how obvious certain outcomes are. As Aimee Mann-alike Bird York warbles over a sadsack montage – a beat which ill-advisedly apes Magnolia’s ‘Wise Up’ sequence – Crash can’t quite bear the comparison. But it still has a hell of an impact.