It's the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.
The opening voiceover of Crash (in the voice of Don Cheadle) is one of the few gentler hints about the thesis of this film by Paul Haggis. A fine ensemble cast spars with some well-written vicious incisive dialogue as the film takes us into the heart of the tumultuous beehive of racial tension in America (situated quite appropriately in Los Angeles, home of other films about pragmaticism and morals like Training Day). Our key characters keep bumping into each other while they are trapped in the gumball machine choking in the smoke of lies, a stupid medical insurance system, the pain of a broken family, general ignorance, temper and the corrupting taste of power. The bulk of the film proceeds after being triggered by a flashback. But even in the opening scene in the present, we get an idea of what's in store. Graham Waters, a black cop, is having an affair with his Latina partner Ria (not really ever understanding that she's neither "white" nor "Mexican"). Their car is rear-ended by a car driven by an Asian woman. As another cop takes stock of the situation, the Asian woman's accusations prompt a racially tinged mocking outburst from Ria. The words are few and harsh. There's no candy sugar coating the bitter pill. You get an immediate sense of being slapped with what you'd rather just read about and hope were over soon. The rest of the film doesn't help matters much. The proceedings are disturbing, yet always engaging and often curiously amusing. Haggis deserves plaudits for his ability to mix candour, humour and shock into an intelligent film.
Although the coincidences that support the narrative may invite criticism for contrivance, they serve a greater purpose: they define a small universe of people plagued by fear, helplessness, doubt and hate thanks to actual and perceived racial differences.
Each character goes through moments, either overt or subtle, of being either the victim or inflictor of intolerance and hate. And there is a chance for each to enjoy being able to remain level-headed in the face of such viles. Yet, these never happen in a fixed sequence. It's all mixed with the fate of the other players, and this gives the film's scenes an interesting balance. There's never a sense of right or wrong. If anything, there's a consistent sense of empathy for each character. Because such intolerance is also a child of social conditioning and it's hard to blame the conditioned for all the effects.
The film shares the motif of a crash with David Cronenberg's disturbing film in 1996 (an adaptation of J G Ballard's novel -- the real downer was being forced to eschew the Elizabeth Taylor reference) that explored a surreal link between raw sexuality and car crashes.