Every few years, some high-minded writer/director decides to make a "tapestry" movie about troubled Los Angeles, documenting the preternaturally intersecting lives of its fictional citizens. This year it's Crash, the stoic effort of Paul Haggis (best known for his screenplay for Million Dollar Baby) to explain What It's All About.
Crash – and Haggis should've chosen a title that wouldn't confuse his picture with the notable David Cronenberg movie – is a noble effort, not as glib as Robert Altman's sexist, whites-only Short Cuts, not as pretentious as Paul Thomas Anderson's overrated (and overly Caucasian) Magnolia, and, perhaps most importantly, not nearly as long as either film. Haggis's main triumph may simply be acknowledging that a bunch of blacks, latinos and Asians live in LA too.
However, by using race as his primary focal point, the filmmaker tries hard to reveal uneasy truths about race relations, but his characters bark epithets at each other when the true insidiousness of LA-style racism lies in its subtlety: its furtive glances and locked doors. This disingenuous in-your-face ranting is a persistent problem with the script, and one that Haggis could have easily written around while still exploring his themes.
Despite that – and despite the usual disbelief one must suspend with these "city tapestry" films, with their Dickensian levels of interconnections between the same dozen or so people, in a city of millions – Crash is a well-acted, briskly-paced drama with a story that consistently heads towards the predictable, only to take an ironic (and often touching) left turn at the last minute.
With his film's penchant for moral ambiguity (many of the characters exhibit both heroic and appalling behavior – Matt Dillon is a standout as a racist cop), Haggis seems inspired by the late Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski, particularly his Decalogue and Three Colors trilogy. I have no problem with that. I'd much rather see filmmakers borrowing from Kieslowski than from, say, Quentin Tarantino.
All in all, even though Haggis almost blows it with a self-conscious, everything's-gonna-be-all-right final coda, there's enough genuinely good stuff in Crash to recommend it, albeit with reservations.