Although usually regarded as one of the worst Best Picture winners, Crash (2004) is not without support. Probably its most famous defender is Roger Ebert, who gave it a perfect 4/4 review. He calls it a movie of “intense fascination”, explaining that, “not many films have the possibility of making their audiences better people”. I myself, don’t like the movie, and I certainly don’t think it makes its audience better people. It’s interesting that Ebert chose to champion the film, since 26 years earlier he complained that the characters in The Driver (1978) were just symbols, and “symbols have a curious way of sinking the stories they’re in”. I couldn’t agree more. The characters in Crash are so tokenistic that they actually work against their own purposes. Not one of them has an actual personality, and if you cross out their names, you’ll see that they all speak in exactly the same voice. They’re just spouting Paul Haggis’ rhetoric, which is why the film plays more like a lecture than a story; little in the way of nuance, but it gets its point across by hook or crook.
Compare Crash with a movie like Do The Right Thing (1989), from which it clearly draws some inspiration. Both are cross-cutting ensemble dramas about racial tension coming to a head in an urban environment. The difference is this: Crash gives us answers, Do The Right Thing gives us questions. Crash wraps up its storylines in neat, little bows, where Do The Right Thing allows things to play out a little more freely. The characters in Crash speak through some sort of bizarre filter that turns everything they say into a racial comment. Writer-director Paul Haggis tries to hide the fact that he speaks directly to the audience, but he doesn’t do a good job. You can always tell when you are being addressed because of how eager the characters are to discuss their own prejudices. When Flanagan gives his speech to Detective Waters, he can’t help talking about all the, “sociological reasons why, per capita eight times more black men are incarcerated than white men… schools are a disgrace, lack of opportunity, bias in the judicial system, all that stuff…” Later Officer Ryan tells Shaniqua, “I can’t look at you without thinking about the five or six more-qualified white men who didn’t get your job”. In a better movie these characters would act according to the subtext, instead of just saying it out loud.
Everything that happens in the film is such an obvious allegory that none it can play out as drama. We are constantly being reminded of how socially-relevant the themes are, usually by the self-congratulatory score or the contemplative montages of the city at night. When Anthony and Peter drop the Chinese man off in front of the hospital, we pan to a giant nativity scene taking up the entire frame. Do we really need that kind of overt symbolism? Crash claims to be motivated by compassion and at times bitterness, but the truth is that it just wants to impress us. Paul Haggis spends every waking moment trying to aggressively intimidate the viewer, but he doesn’t have much say. To call this a social commentary piece is generous, since its only comment seems to be that everyone’s a little bit racist, which has been said before and more eloquently. If I were a betting man, I’d say Haggis thought that writing this film would win him a few black friends.
The biggest complaint about Crash seems to be that it beat out Brokeback Mountain (2004) for Best Picture. That’s a bit of poetic justice, because Brokeback Mountain is, in many ways, the perfect antithesis to Crash. They’re both films that address a relevant social issue, but Brokeback Mountain is a lot more eloquent. When I watch Crash I get the sneaking suspicion that I’m being manipulated.