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Movie Review: Crash

Directed by Paul Haggis
Written by Haggis and Bobby Moresco
Lionsgate, 2005

This review was taken from my old site, the L & N Line, and I have added/subtracted some things here and there to make it go along with the current Best Picture scheme. 

Jack Nicholson was the first person to be surprised. When he opened the envelope and said “The Oscar goes to…” he seemed pleased to be able to spring the shocker, “Crash.” And the predictable 2005 Oscars finally had a chill-bump moment.

After all, 2005 was supposed to be the year for Brokeback Mountain, the movie that had stormed all the critic’s lists and was the consensus favorite.  But the gay-themed Brokeback shows that there are still a lot of “Old Hollywood” players still out there who felt uncomfortable about voting for that kind of movie.

Haggis, for the second straight year, got a writing Oscar.  His Million Dollar Baby, directed by Clint Eastwood, won the Adapted honor, while this won the Original Screenplay Oscar.

You’ve got to admire the balls of Lionsgate for releasing an intelligent, Oscar-worthy picture at the kickoff of the summer movie season, competing against the likes of more visible fare like Kingdom of Heaven and House of Wax. You typically see a film like this in December.  This is a film with race at heart, but all of the characters struggle with it in their own way. All of these characters have a surface where we as an audience believe we have them pegged early on, only to have our opinions change.

What’s wonderful about the movie is that even as our opinions change, we still can’t peg these characters. We still can’t pigeon-hole them at movie’s end. These people, omigosh, are complex. When’s the last time you heard that and “summer release” put together? Much like Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson’s fine ensemble piece with loosely connected stories, Crash emulates it, only with a more plot-driven structure. A small decision made could mean life or death, and Haggis shows us the joy and the travesty of those decisions; he does not flinch from either.

From the beginning, Haggis places characters in situations filled with irony, and each “episode” is a real study into true character. Some people might watch this and say, “Bullshit…there’s no way all of these characters keep tangling with each other…life isn’t like that.” What P.T. Anderson and now Haggis say, and I agree whole-heartedly, is that life is this way.

My philosophy is that movies, books, any kind of entertainment medium, cover stories that are worth telling and are interesting. True contrivance is when a writer serves their cornered plots a miracle way out of that corner: A man walks into a darkened dead-end alley being chased by madmen and the dead-end turns out to be a secret door or a helicopter flies by and throws down a ladder; that type of thing. The interaction of characters, in their normal environs, can be ironic or incredible, maybe even unbelievable, but these things do happen, these things happen all the time (to quote Ricky Jay from Magnolia).

The interweaving characters are Graham (Don Cheadle) and Ria (the scorching Jennifer Esposito) who are investigators/lovers, Jean (Sandra Bullock, in her best acting job ever) and husband/district attorney Rick (Brendan Fraser), two thoughtful, confused souls in Anthony (Ludacris) and Peter (Larenz Tate), two cops in “racist dick” Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon) and the “moral conscience” Officer Hanson (Ryan Phillippe), locksmith Daniel (Michael Pena) and his family, store owners Farhad (Shaun Toub) and daughter Dorri (Bahar Soomekh), and film director Cameron (Terrence Howard) and his wife Christine (Thandie Newton).

Other key characters are played by Loretta Devine in yet another no-sass role but serves the movie and her better, William Fichtner, and Keith David, among others. I can’t express how good everyone here is–they knew the material and brought their A game.

The plot is well-crafted and it culminates in some breathtaking drama, especially the one depicted in the poster at the top of this review.  Be prepared to go through an emotional thrill ride during the movie’s end. 

Cheadle is always outstanding, and Matt Dillon (nominated for Best Actor) brings it when he needs to, I also really enjoyed Michael Pena–but perhaps the movie’s Best Actor award goes to Terrence Howard, a man who has played a lot of characters and has blended into vehicles made for other stars. His performance in Hustle & Flow earned him the Oscar nomination, but he’s equally good here.  You can’t say that any one character or performance stands out because they are pretty much equal, but in one major scene his intensity is consuming, a whole lot is said about his character here and it could have easily been another Denzel Washington “King Kong ain’t got shit on me!” over-the-top, scene grazer (not to put down that scene or anything, but in a movie like this, over-the-top would have been a violation).

Ultimately, you might see some complaints here and there about what the message of this movie is. When you see characters who seem to be propped up as moralistic and yet they end up doing the disappointing or stereotypical thing, it may seem like the movie has no sense of hope. But the movie does have a real sense of hope, that even these characters who seem to falter can step back and see their mistakes, and not in some deus-ex-machina kind of way. It seems as if the movie is saying that situations and feelings at the moment may be different at certain times for certain people; we are always learning and evolving. As you can tell, this movie got me thinking in a big way. You must absolutely watch this film.

Crash beat out Brokeback Mountain, and thankfully, Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck, and Munich in 2005.  Those last three are good movies, but overlooked were Cinderella Man, Match Point, and A History of Violence, not to mention King Kong, a movie that would have easily been nominated if it had not been considered a box office failure.  Crash was my favorite movie of 2005, so I agreed with the Academy on this, and after watching it a second time, I stand by that.

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