The theme of “Crash”, spoken by Graham (Don Cheadle) at the beginning of the movie, provides its structure. “It's the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.” The two hours of “Crash” feature violent contact in many disturbing and enthralling ways, including the basic Los Angeles interaction, the car accident, as well as open racial bigotry, carjackings, spousal spats, hate crimes, and shootings.
The cast members deliver one great performance after another, and there are a handful of unforgettable, wrenching scenes: Daniel coming home to find his daughter sleeping under the bed for fear of stray bullets, Officer Ryan rescuing Christine from the wreckage of her overturned car, and Cameron turning the tables on his carjackers and standing up to the police. The strength of the dialogue and the realism of the encounters mitigates the mostly improbable ways the characters actually wind up together. Odd as this may seem, the style of “Crash” is borrowed in many places from Quentin Tarantino. Anthony and Peter talk about racial stereotypes for a minute or two and then suddenly pull guns and commit a carjacking. The rhythm of the scene is pure Pumpkin and Honey Bunny from “Pulp Fiction.
The movie’s structure, in which different characters are followed elliptically within a narrow aperture of time and space to draw out their similarities, seems a uniquely American one. In letters, Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio” and Carson McCullers’ “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter” are two novels that stand out from, say, Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway”, in that they explore fault-lines along the nominal equality of American democracy: how do we really interact with each other across divides of class, race, and gender?
The answer that emerges in “Crash” is frightening, all the more so because, as other critics have noted, the binary opposition of good and evil breaks down completely until there are no more good or evil characters, merely people making decisions from moment to moment that are neither moral nor immoral but conform to a different kind of consistency, that of human fallibility in dealing with difference. “Crash” also seems to posit the idea that we are all motivated by love on some level, positively or negatively, and that the difficulties native to that personal motivation are mirrored in and frustrated by the larger clashes in American life. The film is about violence, and locates it in two main arenas: private, intimate confrontations and public, racial confrontations. One does not create the other. But each type of violence does reverberate in the other. For the baldness of some of its devices, “Crash” is an excellent and nuanced vision of morality because it focuses exclusively on those reverberations rather than groping for value judgments. The film understand that the true core of our relations with other people is complex and malleable.
If “Crash” is a summa on modern morality among the races in America, it finds its conclusion in the equalities generated by its aforementioned structure. The shadowland of morality poses many unanswerable questions, the film seems to declare, but we all inhabit the same world. As grim as its perspective is, “Crash” is ultimately optimistic because an Officer Ryan is capable of both rank bigotry and astonishing heroism, or Anthony, the carjacker, can commit crimes as easily as he can acts of mercy. Our duality is our redemption. And it’s at odds with many of the realities that have emerged in recent decades in urban as well as rural areas. There has been a breakdown in what we refer to as the human, a dark region for which “Crash” has no accounting. Even if we accept—and we do—that, at bottom, no human being is beyond salvation, one cannot stare clearly at the dehumanizing forces of modern civilization and still turn a blind eye to its impact on actual individuals. Los Angeles, the city and its traffic, becomes a metaphor for alienation, but no character is seriously alienated from himself, only from other people.
This is not a pessimistic viewpoint. To say that there are higher agencies of humanity must allow for the lower as well. There is no lower stratum in “Crash”. No one “falls” in a moral sense, exactly, because they are already fallen. Some know this and some must learn. As Officer Ryan tells Officer Hanson, “Wait until you’ve been on the job longer”. But what is implied by the unifying structure? What is implied by the falling snow, the simplest and most obvious unifying device? What is implied by the ideas of grace which skulk around the edges of the ending? What is implied in the burning car or the “Home Calling” call that Cameron gets as he watches it? “Crash” is an example of how a work of art can be skillfully constructed to pose important questions, which is sometimes the only true achievement to which a mature work of art should aspire. But it is also true that “Crash” falls prey to the usual naive conclusions about human nature that weaken all positivist ideologies about race relations.