So goes the message of Paul Haggis' feature-film directing debut, Crash, which tries to up the ante (and emotional voltage) by sincerely and gamely taking on the touchy subject of race and class in America. We may be all in this together, Haggis says, but we're also bigoted as hell, we pretty much hate each other's guts, and if something doesn't change soon for the better, someone's gonna get a cap in his ass. But while cynics might want to anoint the Million Dollar Baby screenwriter Hollywood's Most Portentous Storyteller, and Crash suffers from too much huffing and puffing to make its point, Haggis deserves credit for discussing racism from its many angles and emotions.
There are no heroes or villains in this film, only people with too-human emotions bubbling under the surface and set to boil over. Much of the action occurs in cars, the staple of L.A. life; characters are seen doing everything with and inside them, including the pivotal crash of the title. Along the way, this polyglot of characters, supposed to represent the melting pot that Los Angeles has become, acts out almost every form of racism influenced by a previous experience, so instructive is the script by Haggis and collaborator Bobby Moresco. In one scene, LAPD officer Ryan (Matt Dillon) pleads over the phone with an African-American insurance claims worker (Loretta Devine) to help him get coverage for his father's mounting medical bills. Clearly frustrated, Ryan asks for her name.
'Sheniqua,' she replies.
'Big f--king surprise,' he hisses.
She hangs up on him.
Soon after, Ryan and his partner (Ryan Phillippe) search for a stolen SUV and pull over a similar car driven by TV director Cameron (Terrence Dashon Howard) and his equally light-skinned African-American wife, Christine (Thandie Newton). While it's clear they've done nothing wrong, Ryan harasses them to the point of groping Christine while Cameron can only watch helplessly. The incident unearths long-standing resentments between the couple, with Christine accusing Cameron of being an Uncle Tom.
This web of domino-effect actions ripples through the film, whether it's a black detective and his Latino partner Ria (Jennifer Esposito), the almost comedic team of black car thieves Anthony (Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges) and Peter (Larenz Tate), the white yuppie couple of housewife Jean (Sandra Bullock) and District Attorney Rick (Brendan Fraser), the Persian shop owner Farhad (Shaun Toub), or the Mexican-American locksmith Daniel (Michael Pena). Sooner or later, they all crash into one another, with the tension mounting and the question becoming, Who will die?
Haggis is at his best in conveying the suspicion, fear and isolation that has infiltrated modern society. We're constantly searching for ways to isolate ourselves at a time when we need to understand one another most, so the cycle inevitably must spin into violence. The trick is to capture this nuance in fully developed characters we can like just as quickly as we can dismiss them, and vice versa. Cheadle is particularly effective here, playing an affable enough detective --- until he casually tosses a crass comment about his girlfriend's Latino ethnicity. Haggis is banking on misunderstanding fueling the anger behind most of the racist tendencies in this film, sometimes straining credibility in the process, but even if it's symbolic the point is made: We're unwilling to do the heavy lifting of tolerance.
What holds Crash back is Haggis' insistence on loading up so many subplots with the possibility of violence that, toward the third act, we just wish he'd kill someone, anyone, and get it over with. There are so many little red flags of foreshadowing you need a scorecard to keep up. At the screening I attended, one woman behind me groaned in exasperation, 'There's too much drama going on for me!' The inevitable montage of resolution couldn't come soon enough, with its promise of our potential humanity, and I couldn't help feel that naggingly familiar sense of overwrought emotionalism that plagued Paul Thomas Anderson's wannabe epic, Magnolia. It made me appreciate the simplicity of the manipulative Million Dollar Baby that much more. And yet, it's very difficult to fault Haggis for going where other contemporary filmmakers fear to tread. If we're to leave meditations on racism to the Spike Lees of the world, we're in very sad shape. (Undercover Brother, a hilarious comedy, is about as good as it gets these days.) It's been 16 years since Do the Right Thing, and that's a mighty long time to wait for the dialogue to continue in any mature fashion.