Did you realize Crash was a Christmas movie?
Yes, they celebrate Christmas in L.A. At least the random family in whose driveway Cameron confronts the police celebrates Christmas. In fact, we see giant inflatable decorations in their yard. Merry Christmas, buddy, he seems to be saying to Cameron. Here's a present: you won't get shot by the cops. No, no you don't have to thank me—it's from Santa.
Many people who celebrate Christmas, even those in L.A. dream of a white Christmas. Well, today is L.A.'s lucky day. In the first five minutes of the movie, a fellow cop says to Graham:
COP: I heard it might snow.
That would be quite the Christmas miracle, wouldn't it?
We don't hear much about snow for the rest of the movie. But at the very end, when we loop back around to the opening scene, it starts to snow. Snow, in L.A. It's a miracle. It's not quite as miraculous as all races getting along, but we have to take miracles where we can, no matter how small. And seeing L.A. covered in white is mira…
Hey, wait a minute. Did a movie about race really choose a fluffy white precipitation to be its closing image? Yes, yes it did. Make of that what you will.
We should also mention that snow in L.A. means that things are weird. Like, snow doesn't happen in L.A. It's as if things have got so bad on the ground that now the weather is getting all freaked out. Snow is also cold and impersonal—it keeps you at home, away from your neighbors—so it could also be showing us that all the lines of communication in L.A. have been broken beyond repair.
Either way, it's weird.
Anthony doesn't like it when Peter sticks a "voodoo ass" thing to the dashboard of their car. But this "voodoo ass" thing isn't a small statue of Miss Cleo—it's a small statue of Saint Christopher.
Saint Christopher isn't an official saint, but he's still a popular one, listed as the patron of bachelors, transportation, traveling, storms, epilepsy, gardeners, holy death, and toothache.
The most important of those things is transportation. Catholics for centuries have looked to Saint Christopher to watch over them while they're on the road. Both Hanson and Peter seem to know what Saint Christopher is all about; both of them are using him for protection.
Unfortunately, it's that Saint Christopher trinket that gets Peter killed. He pulls it out, and Hanson things he's going for a gun, so he shoots Peter dead. Maybe if Christopher were a real saint, he would have protected Peter?
Anyway, what this tells us is two things. First, that the white guy is way more protected than the Black guy. Second, that there's no real protection anywhere on these mean streets, for anyone.
There's a cheery idea.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
In a movie with about 317 characters, give or take a dozen, we first have to pick who the hero is. We pick Anthony because he experiences the most character development, for better or worse, during the film.
To start with, Anthony's ordinary world is one of diners and carjackings. He loads up on pancakes and gets ready for some real-life GTA.
When Jean Cabot and her husband Rick "George of the Jungle" Cabot get into their slick SUV, Anthony and his partner Peter decide to carpe auto and seize that car at gunpoint.
Anthony doesn't know it yet, but when he runs over a "Chinaman" and dumps his body at the hospital, he's missing out on a greater good he could be performing in life. And not just because he committed a hit and run.
Anthony fancies himself a mentor, lecturing Peter on the Black experience. He swears he's never robbed from a Black man, but then he accidentally attempts to carjack Cameron Thayer, because people are always mistaking Cameron for white. Now Anthony is about to get schooled himself.
Anthony is dragged across the threshold when Cameron pulls him into the car and speeds away.
Having the tables turned on him by Cameron, Anthony has no idea what's going to happen to him. Cameron seems totally unhinged, and Anthony doesn't know what's going on.
During the high-speed chase from the police, Anthony is totally confused. He thought he was a carjacker who only stole from white people, but then he accidentally stole from a Black man. Now, that Black man has basically carjacked him in his own car, and Anthony wonders if he might go to jail—or worse.
Although we don't see it on camera, we can only imagine how nerve-wracking it is for Anthony to wait in the passenger seat, hiding, while Cameron has a stand-off with white police officers.
Anthony's reward is that he gets to live. He's also rewarded with a lecture from Cameron, who tells him that he basically embarrasses the whole Black race.
The lecture doesn't appear to stick. Anthony passes by the van that belonged to the man he ran over at the beginning of the movie. He steals it to take to the chop shop for quick cash. Guess he isn't reformed, after all.
At the chop shop, Anthony learns the van is packed with Thai and Cambodian slaves. The chop shop owner offers to buy them and the van. About two dozen for the price of one. What a bargain. But Anthony declines the offer.
Anthony frees the slaves. He has introduced them to America, a place where human slaves are still bought and sold, but sometimes they're freed to be racially profiled by others. For now, they're happy to free, and Anthony feels like he's done a good deed.
Los Angeles: where the racial tensions are bad, and the traffic is worse. It's the perfect place for Crash, a movie about road rage, racial rage, and just rage in general.
The movie isn't set in a particular time period, but it's definitely post-9/11. For one thing, it was made in 2004, but more importantly, the racial attitudes toward Farhad are at least partly a result of the Islamophobia that reared up after the World Trade Center attacks. Just get a load of what the gun clerk says to Farhad, for example:
GUN CLERK: Yo, Osama! Plan a jihad on your own time.
Although the movie isn't necessarily location specific, it would have been hard to set it in a different place. It needs to be a large city, but other cities, like Boston or New York or San Francisco, have a different kind of traffic problem: their traffic doesn't move. Los Angeles is spread out, and its streets are long, creating the illusion of movement.
On the other hand, like the U.S.'s progress with racism in general, sometimes it feels like we're not really going anywhere.
Ooh, deep right?
Crash features about two dozen characters with interlocking stories all brought together by fate. It's a technique used by many films in the 90s, like Pulp Fiction (1994), Go (1999), Short Cuts (1993), and Magnolia (1999). Crash takes it to the next level.
Another narrative trick Crash uses is to start at the end, then flashback to "yesterday" and finish at the beginning. This device sets up Detective Waters as the film's main character, even though he is only one of many.
Nevertheless, almost every other character's storyline intersects with Waters'. He is Peter's brother, who is shot by Officer Hanson. He and Ria crash into a woman who is related to the man run over by Anthony and Peter. And he has a tense encounter with Flanagan, who works for Rick Cabot. The only person he doesn't interact with is Ruiz, though Ruiz is only one degree of separation away.
We do think it's funny, though, that in a movie with interlocking narratives, it's the locksmith who is the one on the fringe…
Crash is a film that tries so hard to ooze drama. Characters go off on dramatic monologues. A little girl is almost shot in sloooooowwwwwwww mooooooooootioooooonnnnnnn. Sandra Bullock falls down about three steps and just lies there for about two minutes until you FEEL HER PAIN.
And all of this happens in less than two days.
This kind of heightened drama is what is known as melodrama. Melodrama is defined as "drama in which many exciting events happen and the characters have very strong or exaggerated emotions" (source). It's a term that is generally applied to soap operas or teen shows like Pretty Little Liars, but less often to Academy Award-winning films.
But there's a point to the melodrama in Crash. The film shows how in a short span of time, multiple interlocking lives start to implode. All the civilized veneer of living in a modern metropolis? Gone. All that hidden racism and rage? Very much present. It's like everyone's on edge, all the time, and when one person goes off, it starts a chain reaction.
Do you really need us here, folks? The title is explained in the very first line of the movie.
WATERS: It's the sense of touch. […] 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.
Okay, so that is the movie explaining its own title. But do you believe the explanation? Does anyone willfully crash into someone else? And if this is a movie about human contact, why isn't it called Hug? Wouldn't that be a nicer story?
Most of the disasters that happen in the movie happen because people aren't communicating. They're totally cut off from each other. Everyone is miserable in one way or another, and it's like they start reverting to their worst selves in order to blame their misery on other people. Having a bad day? Must be your Mexican maid's fault. Worried about your dad? Take it out on the nearest Black person behind a desk.
It goes on and on.
It's as if this lack of communication—and lack of basic humanity—creates a situation in which the only communication that can happen is explosive and destructive.
You know, a crash.
Crash begins with a car accident, but not all its characters' endings are so dramatic.
Some of them are, though: Detective Waters is called to a crime scene only to discover the victim is his brother. His brother, Peter, has been shot by a cop. Officer Hanson, after shooting Peter, wonders if he is as racist as Officer Ryan said he'd be. Christine Thayer must be rescued by the officer who sexually assaulted her. Cameron yells at the police in attempt to assert his dignity, and then has a white officer save him. Anthony frees some Thai and Cambodian slaves. And Jean falls down the stairs and hurts her ankle.
Okay, yeah, that's drama. But that's not actually where the movie ends.
At the very end of the movie, Anthony frees the slaves, giving them hope for a new life in America. Then we see Shaniqua Johnson get rear ended. Instead of getting out her car and asking, "Are you okay?" she immediately starts yelling at the non-white driver who hit her.
SHANIQUA JOHNSON: Don't talk to me unless you speak American!
Ah, yes, those people freed from the bonds of human trafficking now have a promising life in America, where people will yell at them just for being different.
Crash is chock full of racial slurs, gun violence, gratuitous nudity, and people yelling and screaming at one another for almost two hours straight. It's rated R for Race, Revolvers, Ria's boobs, and Really, why won't you people just shut up?
Buckle up your seatbelts, folks, because this is one bumpy ride.