Most of Crash's protagonists are walking time bombs who swallow injustices, then take out their frustrations on the first person of a different color who crosses their paths.
Overlapping, multicharacter films set in Southern California, such as Short Cuts and Magnolia, are rapidly calcifying into their own formulaic genre. Crash justifies its sprawling structure with a compelling vision of the City of Angles as an overheated melting pot. Throughout Crash, road rage incidents and other automotive mishaps bring strangers into collision, but the film earns respect with its quiet moments about picking up the pieces.
In one of the film's central episodes, bullying LAPD officer Ryan (Matt Dillon) pulls over an upscale African-American couple, Cameron and Christine (Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton), for "driving while black." Clearly envious of their wealth, Ryan humiliates them while his conscience-stricken partner (Ryan Phillipe) looks on.
But the incident's fallout proves more complex than a case of police brutality and victimization. We learn that Ryan struggles with a hostile health insurance worker (who happens to be black) while trying to care for his ailing father. Phillipe's character tries to file a protest in an indifferent police department, while Christine insults Cameron's masculinity and their marriage begins to implode.
Within moments, the film can both undermine a stereotype and affirm it. Brash young Anthony (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) rails hilariously about how people automatically assume he's a black street criminal. Then, he turns around and carjacks an upper-class white couple (Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock) who happen to be the district attorney and his wife. Bullock's character becomes increasingly nervous and bigoted after the crime, illustrating the old dictum that a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged.
Though Fraser and Bullock's roles vanish for long stretches of the film, Crash's actors uniformly show people with divided souls, capable of ugly pettiness and noble self-sacrifice. As an honest police detective, Don Cheadle provides the kind of steadying central performance that's rapidly making the actor an icon of integrity in American films, like this generation's Henry Fonda.
Haggis just won an original screenplay Oscar for Million Dollar Baby, but Crash proves more redolent of the big-city pungency he gave his superb short-lived TV series, "EZ Streets." But where Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee's cathartic film about prejudice, focused on a rich community, Crash more self-consciously emphasizes race as an "issue" with a capital I.
You can only expect so much subtlety from a film that so freely hurls ethnic epithets. But Crash occasionally crosses a line between provoking the audience and manipulating it. Haggis relies heavily on coincidences and introduces the film with a too-literal metaphor about commuting in Los Angeles and human contact. When Michael Pena's hard-working locksmith talks about protecting his daughter, we practically feel the author's foreshadowing hand.
Crash leaves some collateral damage by propagating new racial clichés even as it subverts old ones. (Like Guess Who, it too casually paints black women as angry and vengeful.) A Persian shopkeeper (Shaun Toub), erroneously branded by vandals as an "Arab terrorist," becomes increasingly enraged and dangerous. Perhaps Crash means to suggest that the victims of bigotry can be so twisted that they live up to false stereotypes. Or maybe the film just offers one more portrayal of an unstable Middle Eastern man.
Crash ambitiously takes on a huge theme from more angles than one film can really encompass. Nevertheless, it's filled with taut, engrossing sequences, and it honestly shows how ordinary people can rise or fall when given a chance for redemption. That some people fail such tests might explain why, in today's America, we can't all just get along.