A Suffocating Density

Crash

I rarely complain that a movie is too short, but Paul Haggis’ Crash is too short. I don’t mean that I didn’t want it to end — quite the contrary. Instead, I mean that at 113 minutes it’s overcrowded, rushed, and skeletal, all to the degree that it’s only intermittently credible.

Haggis, who wrote Million Dollar Baby, directed and co-wrote Crash, and it’s frequently an impressive effort — handsome, admirably raw, acute, clever, dense, and efficient. Too dense, though, and too efficient.

The movie sees Los Angeles exclusively through the lens of race, and it piles improbability upon improbability. Yet neither of those things is fatal.

The biggest problem is that Haggis suffocates his material; it has no air, and never establishes its characters outside of the context of general racial intolerance and ignorance. The movie has more than a dozen major characters, and they’re each defined by their prejudices, which are in turn ruled by their race and socioeconomic position. Whenever there’s a sharp line — and there are many — more often than not it’s smart on its own rather than a perceptive expression of character.

Actions and reactions are similarly hit-and-miss in terms of believability; in one critical scene involving a racist cop (Matt Dillon) and an accident victim, my acceptance of what I saw wavered no fewer than three times, from buying it to not and back around again. It’s not that the scene couldn’t have worked, but that Haggis didn’t ground his movie enough in characters to make it effective.

The irony is that because Haggis plows through the plot, his movie — ostensibly a well-intentioned, humane work meant to give us all perspective on how our undeniable racism ruins the world — is reduced to stereotypes and obvious reversals of those stereotypes. The denizens of Crash aren’t specific enough to resonate as people, so they operate mostly as shorthand heavy with meaning: the PR-obsessed politician, the culturally blanched black man, the idealistic white cop whose buried racism will tragically be revealed, etc. Only a pair of carjackers emerges as something greater than sketches, and they’re used primarily as comedic commentators. Virtually every character in the movie is a writer’s device rather than a flesh-and-blood creation.

As an L.A. panorama, Crash has drawn comparisons to other, better movies — films no less incredible than Haggis’ movie in terms of links and events. But both Short Cuts and Magnolia were patient, unspooling naturally and taking the time to develop their people. It’s not an accident that each was three hours long.

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