"It's the sense of touch," Don Cheadle says at the beginning of Crash, Paul Haggis' funeral lament for the City of Angels, where, just to make contact with another human being, you have to ram their car with yours. Crash opens with a car accident and closes with a car accident, but it's really about the way people seal themselves off from one another in a town that's less a melting pot than a boiling cauldron. Race is the movie's dividing line, providing us with a color-coded map of L.A.'s many tribes, none of which seem to understand the others. Overall, it's a hellish vision that Haggis, in his directing debut, infuses with humor and pathos.
Grand Canyon, Falling Down, Magnolia ' movies that try to "get" Los Angeles are usually such a crock, the liberal piety hovering like smog. Only Robert Altman's Short Cuts avoided that earnestness, allowing the city to speak for itself. Crash, which adopts Short Cuts' interweaving storylines, presses down awfully hard on its theme, Ã la Grand Canyon. But its theme is neither liberal nor conservative, uplifting nor downbeat, simple nor complex. As the movie's characters bounce off one another, hurling racial epithets like drunken sailors, we slowly realize that, in the Divided States of America, things are seldom as they seem. A racist cop (Matt Dillon) may risk his life to pull a black woman (Thandie Newton) from a burning automobile. A Latino gangbanger (Michael PeÃa) may be utterly devoted to his young daughter.
And maybe he only looks like a gangbanger. Or maybe he only looks like a gangbanger to a district attorney's wife (Sandra Bullock) who just had a gun pointed at her head by a young black man (rapper Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) whom we've just heard complaining about the racially tinged service he received at a restaurant...from a black waitress! Haggis, who co-wrote the script with Bobby Moresco, just keeps weaving these ironic twists together until we don't know who or what to believe about anybody or anything. Then he rips them apart in a climax that seems both inevitable and avoidable. Not since Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing has a movie so beautifully captured the tug of war between "Know thine enemy" and "Love thy neighbor."