You see a young black guy walking down the sidewalk toward you. What do you do?
Writer/director Paul Haggis’ “Crash” asks this and many other tricky questions about who we are and how we see others. It’s a sprawling, melodramatic epic, full of people at their worst and, occasionally, at their best.
It’s also one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.
“Crash” follows the lives of several different people in Los Angeles over 36 hours. We meet in quick succession several people — a racist white cop, an affluent black TV producer and his wife, a grandstanding carjacker/philosopher, a humble Hispanic locksmith, a frustrated Arab store owner, the wealthy, isolated Los Angeles district attorney and his uptight wife — and we watch as everyone lives in their own little isolated racial and cultural bubbles, interacting mostly only in fear and distrust.
The “crashes” of the title are both literal and psychological, as almost every character is forced to confront hard truths about themselves. Only gradually do we learn how they all come together.
The cast of actors is enormous — Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Don Cheadle, rapper Ludacris, Brendan Fraser, Thandie Newton, Terrence Howard, Ryan Phillipe and even Tony Danza. Many of the cast, including Dillon as an angry, racist cop and a startlingly raw Bullock, give what might just be the best performances of their careers.
“Crash” is an in-your-face, brutal movie that doesn’t pull punches. It’s not comfort food. The characters are all broad stereotypes, yet that’s the point. In “Crash,” Haggis is using these unsubtle characters to tell us something about how we treat each other. Haggis’ characters are intolerant, yet they’re also shown with sympathy.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and America’s ongoing racial divisions, it’s a true movie for our times. It has the weight and power of a modern fable.
Haggis was also the writer of one of 2004’s best films, “Million Dollar Baby.” As a director, he’s astonishingly confident, juggling his many characters and storylines with ease. Only occasionally does his foot slip and things get a bit hard to follow.
Is “Crash” manipulative? Absolutely, but in a way that never makes you feel cheated.
“Crash” sticks with you long after the final images fade from the screen. It’s meant to cause arguments, debate and thought. There are too few movies these days that can do that and also work as cracklingly good entertainment.
**** of four