Accidents Will Happen

(Photo credit: Courtesy of Lions Gate Films)

At the start of Crash, Don Cheadle gets into a nighttime fender-bender primarily, it would seem, so he can state the theme of the movie right off the bat: “We crash into each other so we can feel something,” he mutters portentously. You may feel like groaning a little, but that, mercifully, is the last obvious line uttered in this film. Cheadle turns out to be a police detective on his way to investigate a murder—a body found by the side of a Los Angeles road. A bit later, in a shift so abrupt it could come from a different movie, we’re quickly introduced to two casually dressed young black men, Anthony and Peter (Ludacris and Larenz Tate), walking briskly along a posh L.A. street, complaining about the poor service they just received at a restaurant because, Anthony is convinced, the wait staff thought “we’re black, and black people don’t tip.” They argue amusingly about this possibility—clearly, they carry the unending pressure of casual racism as both an everyday occurrence and, depending on their moods, something to be shrugged off or confronted with righteous anger.

They pass a formally attired white couple, played by Sandra Bullock and Brendan Fraser, on the street, and when Ludacris’s Anthony notices Bullock squeeze Fraser’s arm tighter as they walk by the black men, he mutters a funny line about “overcaffeinated white people,” and then does something that blindsides us and immediately lifts Crash to a heightened level of intensity: He pulls out a gun, leads them back to their big SUV, and carjacks the couple.

It’s a great moment: shocking and scary and almost absurd—a laugh catches in your throat. The focus of Crash then shifts to Bullock and Fraser as victims—we follow them home, where Bullock—playing Jean, a racist harpy with all stops out, doing full penance for her recent Miss Congeniality 2—castigates her husband for his timidity, insists that the locks on their huge house be replaced immediately, and makes loud racist slurs when a Latino man (Michael Pena) comes to perform this labor.

Now we start to recognize the shape Crash is going to take: With each introduction of a new character, the movie gets passed along like a football, or a hot potato—we then learn about the Latino man’s home life, which in turn leads to subplots about an Iranian shopkeeper, with a big swerve into the life of a cruel cop, played by Matt Dillon, who takes grim delight in humiliating a wealthy black TV producer and his wife (Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton) during a routine traffic-violation stop.

First-time film director Paul Haggis, who co-wrote Crash with Bobby Moresco, reaped praise for his adaptation of F. X. Toole’s fiction in the script for Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, but Haggis’s original work for television, in short-lived, complex series like EZ Streets and Michael Hayes, established him as a fellow who likes to take genre conventions, invest them with moral weight, and give them unexpected twists. Eventually, though, Crash becomes too much of a Rubik’s Cube of a movie: We start looking for the shifts and patterns that will force disparate characters to interact with each other, usually in moments of stress. Haggis wants to tell us that racial conflict is always bubbling beneath the surface of contemporary Los Angeles—not a new thought, since we’ve learned that in everything from the Rodney King trial to the fiction of Walter Mosley. And the big-name, small-part, large-ensemble cast is a gambit that’s been used by directors ranging from Robert Altman to Spike Lee to John Sayles to (Haggis’s most obvious influence) Lawrence Kasdan, in the latter’s underrated Grand Canyon.

It’s smart, therefore, that Haggis has written such novel, precisely observed, often unpleasant characters as the ones Bullock, Dillon, and Cheadle inhabit. And if Crash ultimately resolves itself around a series of sentimental familial tableaux (a child placed in danger; a grown son caring for his sick father; a wayward young brother rescued from grave punishment by his elder sibling), it also makes its social and political collisions resonate in our heads so as to leave them ringing. It’s a film you won’t stop thinking about, arguing over, debating, after the lights come up.

  Before Paul Haggis hit pay dirt in the movies with Million Dollar Baby and Crash, he enjoyed a successful career in a genre decidedly less highbrow: prime-time sitcoms. His writing credits during that fertile period include schlockily lovable seventies and eighties series like One Day at a Time, The Love Boat, Diff’rent Strokes, andFacts of Life—and eventually one-hour dramas like L.A. Law and thirtysomething. As Crash gets its theatrical release, Haggis seems to have left the small screen behind: He’s currently working on a big-budget military drama, Death and Dishonor, for Warner Bros.  

Directed by Paul Haggis.
Lions Gate Films. R.

Accidents Will Happen