The screenwriter behind Oscar winner Million Dollar Baby gets behind the camera for Crash.

A Crash Course in Modern Humanity: Heated: Cameron Thayer (Terrence Howard) is one of several protagonists rubbed to combustion by the deplorable abuse of others in Crash.

With Crash, screenwriter Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby) makes an impressive directorial debut with a telescoping deliberation on American race prejudices as viewed through a lens of day-to-day life in the melting pot of Los Angeles. Haggis rivals Robert Altman’s nimble ability to balance numerous characters across a broad narrative canvas. Multiple story threads intertwine around a racist cop (Matt Dillon) and his honest partner (Ryan Phillippe), a duo of black car thieves (Larenz Tate and Ludacris,) a Los Angeles district attorney (Brendan Fraser,) his thin-skinned wife Jean (Sandra Bullock) and a sexist police detective (Don Cheadle). Also, promising hotshot actor Terrence Howard is outstanding as Cameron Thayer, a successful television director whose dignity is challenged by his high-maintenance wife (Thandie Newton) and the fascist demands of his social milieu.

As with most people you meet in everyday life, the characters in Crash are not what they announce themselves to be. Ryan (Dillon) is a hardened veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department and wears his offensive bigotry on his sleeve. He’s just one rung below Harvey Keitel’s abysmal character in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, with a proneness to abusing his authority at will.

Ryan and his partner Hanson (Phillippe) pull over an SUV driven by a black husband (Howard) whose wife (Newton) happens to be giving him a blowjob. Ryan takes advantage of the situation to sexually humiliate Christine (Newton) while her husband is forced to tacitly endorse the atrocity as it’s being committed.

The emotionally wrenching scene is characteristic of the high stakes fragments of all-or-nothing drama that play out in unpredictable ways across every subplot of the movie. For all of Ryan’s self-loathing and ignorant disposition, he nonetheless has an overwhelming involuntary urge to help the very people he consciously categorizes as lesser people. Ryan’s atonement for his heinous behavior is among one of the film’s several climaxes and reveals a hidden layer of humanity that purges the venom we’ve become accustomed to.

As the film’s screenwriter, Haggis pays special attention to social context with a realistic ear for dialogue that fluently dips between divergent cultural influences. The Iranian owner of a small retail business possesses such inferior communication skills that his fate seems doomed until his own inferiority serves to redeem him in his assassination attempt against a Latino locksmith that goes awry. A Chinese smuggler of illegal immigrants is struck by an accident that brings instant karma upon him. In each of these subplots the audience is pulled close inside the mind of the characters and positioned within social parameters that delineate the societal confines that each person attempts to function within.

The extraordinary substance of Crash is the way that the film eventually confirms the higher nature in humanity. In the end, the labels that reduce instinct to ideology are laid open in the impure air of the Los Angeles night.

CRASH (3 stars)

    Directed by Paul Haggis.

    Starring Matt Dillon, Ryan Phillipe,

    Brendan Fraser, Don Cheadle,

    Terrence Howard and Sandra Bullock.

    (Rated R, 100 mins.)

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