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We don't see American movies like Crash very often: ones that involve a variety of characters yet revolve around a single theme. The theme in this case is race and how we try to ignore (or justify) our own prejudices. Written and directed by Paul Haggis (who wrote the script for Million Dollar Baby), the movie features more than half a dozen plotlines that develop over the course of a 24-hour time period. Don Cheadle, in yet another strong performance, is a police detective who's having an affair with his Latina partner while also trying to work a case about a white rogue cop. Matt Dillon is a white cop who's struggling with his dad's physical condition and the HMO bureaucracy. Michael Pena is a young father whose locksmithing job keeps him out late at night. Ryan Phillippe is an idealistic young cop trying to do the right thing and finding that's more complicated than it seems. If that sounds like a lot of cops, you're right, as Crash uses the issue of crime to make the incendiary topic of race even hotter.

The most powerful plotline involves Terrence Howard (Ray) and Thandie Newton (Mission: Impossible II) as an upscale African-American couple pulled over late one night by two white cops. There's been a car-jacking in the vicinity, and even though the older cop knows this isn't the vehicle, he figures it gives him an excuse to find out if these black people are up to any trouble. What ensues is a striking illustration of how power and racial dynamics can warp even the most basic of encounters, and how one wrong assumption can re-define a person's outlook on his fellow man. It helps that Howard and Newton are two of the strongest, most intense actors working today, and they spit out Haggis's lines as if their very souls depended on it.

Haggis, who co-wrote the screenplay with Bobby Moresco, focuses on these assumptions we make about people who are different from us and how we might treat someone if the veneer of political correctness (and good manners) were stripped away. What does a white person do when he finds out that the person on the other end of the phone is named Shaniqua? How does a Hispanic woman react when her black lover doesn't know the difference between a Mexican and a Puerto Rican and, worse, doesn't care? How do black men respond when a rich, white couple ahead of them suddenly freeze up as they walk past? What does a white storekeeper do when a Middle Eastern man who doesn't speak English wants to buy a gun? And what does everyone do when those racial assumptions and prejudices suddenly come into the open?

Parts of Crash are painfully funny, in the way that you can't help but laugh when someone says something audacious. I'd repeat some of the dialogue here, but out of context it might seem genuinely racist; while in the context of the film, these barbs about how various ethnic groups make love and drive cars help define the characters and the issues that surround them. Haggis is clearly of the school that says we need to get things out in the open--we've let the topic of race fester behind closed doors too long.

Fortunately, he not only examines these racial dynamics but also how variations in power affect those dynamics. When Ryan Phillippe tries to report a fellow officer, he (and we) get a brilliant object lesson in why a black man might choose to let racial bigotry go unpunished or even unmentioned. Thandie Newton's rage at the harassment she faces is understandable, but so is her husband's reluctance to report the offense. A district attorney with political aspirations (Brendan Fraser) has to imagine how his various actions will play with what he thinks are the two poles of the electorate: the black vote and the "law-and-order" vote. And even a simple bureaucratic dispute takes on a very different hue as the parties involved drop the race card to gain tactical advantage.

At times, the film veers toward melodrama. A long conversation between a Latino father and his young daughter might be touching, but it seems manipulative when that daughter suddenly runs into danger later in the film. A car crash which traps a main character and brings her face-to-face with her oppressor goes on way too long, and also features the hackneyed trope of flowing gasoline and fire nearby. These scenes are especially unfortunate since Haggis does such a fine job of emphasizing the reality of his characters and situations, of grounding his entire narrative in something true and specific. My friend Garth was frustrated by the movie's tendency to balance everything-- good guys aren't as good as we first thought, while bad guys turn out to have hearts of gold. But the film is more nuanced than that. Yes, Haggis is playing with audience expectations, but he wants to remind us that few people live on the extremes, that we're all capable of moments of heroism as well as moments of genuine bigotry.

The film is not the most impressive visual statement you'll see this year. As you'd expect from a character-driven drama, most of the film is shot in tight close-ups. And as you'd expect from a writer-turned-director, any visual flourish (a car exploding, a crane shot to reveal a snowy Los Angeles) that Haggis includes seems amateurish and out of place. But Haggis elicits strong performances out of almost everyone in his cast (even the hip hop artist Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges), and his refusal to settle for trite conclusions makes for a powerful story.

J. Robert Parks



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