Here is a scene from just one of the many stories in the prismatic movie "Crash". A well-heeled couple is driving home one night while engaging in a sexual activity. They get stopped by the LAPD. The wife, Thandie Newton, has had a few, but the husband is sober. The white cop, Matt Dillon, makes the husband take a drunk test. The wife furiously accuses the cop of singling out a mixed race couple. In fact, both are black, though she is light-skinned. The cop frisks her, blatantly feeling her body to humiliate her. His partner, a rookie, looks on helplessly. The husband does nothing, afraid it will be worse if he fights.
"Crash" is the directorial debut of Paul Haggis, who also wrote the screenplay for "Million Dollar Baby". He's a workmanlike director, but he has a laser beam for a pen. He uses Los Angeles to show that modern alienation is really laced with connections. The movie's forebears are "Short Cuts," "Grand Canyon," and "Magnolia"; but none of those films were so focused on racism.
You expect the couple to have a vicious argument when they get home, and they do - about race. You expect the rookie to go to his superior and be rebuffed. He does, but race turns that scene upside down, too. You certainly don't expect to see the origin of the cop's racism, and that he is capable of both compassion and heroism. The husband and wife will separately encounter the same cops again within 24 hours. LA is a city of 10 million people. That doesn't just stretch credulity, it snaps it in half.
But "Crash" isn't going for "realism," whatever that is. Paul Haggis uses a playwright's technique, trapping a big cast in a bubble like molecules of superheated gas. The characters are confronted with the consequences of their actions, giving them a shot at redemption, or at least insight. When the cop and his victim meet again, the scene is astonishing.
There are famous actors here and unknowns, from Cambodians to Puerto Ricans. There is a Mexican locksmith who is afraid for his daughter since a bullet entered her bedroom; a Persian store owner who thinks that all Mexicans are cheats, and so disregards critical advice; two black carjackers who justify themselves as Robin Hoods in the enemy territory of Santa Monica; and the white wife of a district attorney, full of bewildered rage.
LA is totally dysfunctional. It's the most populous county in the nation, and the third most racially diverse, made by cars into an isolationist wasteland. Disconnect and racial tension are acute there, but these are universal problems. The terrible irony of racism is that it comes from ignorance and pain, and causes the pain to spread. "Crash" exposes the problem, and so becomes part of the solution.
"Crash" has been playing at Showplace East, but check the listings to see if it's still there. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.