(Note: This Crash is David Cronenberg‘s 1996 film, not Paul Haggis‘ one from 2004 that would go on to win Best Picture at the Oscars. The two films have nothing to do with each other.)
Crash is a good example of a film that immediately grabs attention with a unique premise, plenty of sex and nudity and impressive visual flair by director David Cronenberg. It is thus disappointing that the story comes to a screeching halt a mere third in and then refuses to budge. This is a film that could have been really good but doesn’t quite get there.
The subject at hand is people who are aroused by car crashes, which takes various expressions throughout the film. Some want to be in real traffic accidents. Others stage reenactments of famous crashes, such as the one that killed James Dean. They sit around and watch foreign documentaries on crash test dummies as though they were pornos. Some are entranced by the mere sight of a scar or injury suffered in a car crash. They go cruising through the streets in hopes of coming across real accidents. And they have sex. Lots and lots of sex.
There are five central characters in Crash, and the lead is arguably James Ballard (James Spader). We learn early on that he’s in an open marriage with Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger). During the day they have sex with other people, then compare notes about their experiences at night. One day Ballard gets into a head-on collision while driving. The driver of the other car dies, but his wife Helen (Holly Hunter) survives. Ballard and Helen briefly encounter one another in the hospital, then meet up again later on. Neither seems very perturbed by what has happened. He offers to drive her to her work, but on the way they almost get into another accident. When they arrive at their destination, they have impromptu sex in the car. Sensing a connection between their arousal and the near-crash, they find other likeminded individuals, including the intense Vaughan (Elias Koteas) and Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), who wears restrictive steel braces on her legs after an accident.
Throughout Crash, these people have sex in almost all possible pairings. Most of these scenes come more as a follow-up to witnessing a car crash rather than in direct contact with them, so there’s nothing particularly weird about them by themselves. But are they arousing? No, not really. There’s nothing cold or distant about the way they’re shot, and the soundtrack is suitably fitting. But there’s no escaping the fact that the traffic accidents is what gets them off. This isn’t a simple matter of it being a weird fetish that I don’t share, but that it stems from destruction. People are injured and die in crashes. This never seems to faze any of the people in this film (most strangely with Helen, who one would think would be kind of upset that her husband died). Nobody ever voices any concerns about any of this in the movie, with Cronenberg instead leaving it up to the viewer to insert his or her own thoughts on the matter. We’re merely shown the situations and how the characters react to them. It’s a clear disconnect.
The problem here is that none of it goes anywhere. Once Ballard and Helen meet Vaughan and Gabrielle, there’s no further plot development. Instead, we’re just shown the various ways in which they explore their kink. The characters don’t develope any further, and their relationships with each other are all set. It’s just crashes and sex, crashes and sex. Once it’s established that none of the persons are in a monogamous relationship, none of the sexual pairings seem surprising. This in not an automatic problem, as there are a number of good films that take a more observatory approach towards its characters and subject. But I struggle to see what Cronenberg is trying to convey here. A connection between sex and violence? Yes, it’s there, but why? Perhaps part of the blame belongs to the actors. They’re all talented people as we’ve seen in other films, but the only one who’s impressive to any degree here is Koteas, who finds a raw and striking streak in Vaughan and plays it for all its worth. The others feel uninteresting; Arquette’s character is nothing at all, Hunter is surprisingly bleak with the occasional stroke of eagerness, Unger delivers every line in the same hoarse whisper and Spader is just bland. I can’t read anything in any of these people.
Crash isn’t without merit. There are scenes that effectively set up and visualize the eroticism the characters see in the car crashes, such as an early part where we’re treated to a zoomed in shot of Helen caressing the mangled grill of Ballard’s car. A leter episode in a car wash also feels fresh due to the interesting camera angles Cronenberg utilizes. The music is also above average and lends the movie an eerie dreamlike atmosphere. But taken as a whole, the movie is an unsatisfying experience. An intriguing first half hour doesn’t amount to much when the rest of the film plays like a void.