Opened: March 21, 1997 | Rated: NC-17
I walked away from "Crash" not feeling much of anything. David Chronenberg's celluloid offering about auto accident fetishists -- folks who get a sexual thrill out of being in car wrecks -- didn't leave me numb so much as dulled.
Visually engrossing, Chronenberg creates explicit, nearly silent scenes of animal sex and elaborate carnage that mysteriously captivate, but his characters are one-note loonies of little interest. I was impressed technically, but otherwise unengaged.
However, as I drove home after the screening I found myself extraordinarily aware of the cars around me -- their distance, speed and the manner of other drivers. I found myself realizing that if I were aware of an accident before it happened, I could likely emerge fairly unscathed.
Then it hit me: This is exactly what Chronenberg was aiming for. He wanted his audience to feel precisely the same sensation one gets when passing an accident on the freeway -- repelled but unable to turn away. The fact that he accomplished this with a filmed work of fiction is astounding.
OK, I'm impressed. But understand this is, to say the least, a qualified recommendation. "Crash" is not a date movie. It's not a movie your mom wants to see. It is candidly raw, with bruises and scars that play a role in sex scenes and car crashes that are unabashed in bloody detail.
If you already know a little about "Crash" and think you won't like it, believe me, you're right.
But appalled or not, those who see it will realize Chronenberg is exploring a morbid curiosity that dwells somewhere within most of us. Yes, the world hasn't any real car crash fetishists (I hope!), but why do people stand in line to ride bumper cars at amusement parks?
James Spader plays James Ballard, a television commercial producer who finds himself with an unquenchable desire for twisted autos and damaged bodies after a head-on collision in which his leg is mangled.
He already has an unusually open sexual relationship with his wife (Debroah Kara Unger) -- in the sack they trade stories of their extramarital exploits -- and after coming face-to-face with Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), the driver of the other car who's husband was killed, he develops a driving (oo! the pun!) lust for her.
The three of them get involved with Vaughan (Elias Koteas), the leader of a car crash cult that takes particular pleasure in examining each others scars and re-creating famous wrecks like the ones that killed James Dean, Jane Mansfield and Grace Kelly.
There is a sensation of distance that accompanies all these characters. They live outside society and seem only to acknowledge each other, and Chronenberg's exploration of them is vague. All we really see is that they are driven to corporeal sexual encounters by the sight of mangled metal.
The newly initiated Ballards and Dr. Remington take to hanging around Vaughan's run-down workshop/apartment apartment, getting off on videos of crash tests like they're porno movies. They drive around nights listening to a police scanner and rushing to the scenes of accidents -- then have sex. They shop for new cars, just for the thrill -- then have sex.
These people aren't particularly clever or interesting and that is the film's biggest burden once you get past its manipulative, raw edge. They are driven to random acts of sex simply for the physical sensation, with no sense of emotion or satisfaction. In fact, for them the partner is irrelevant. It is the fact of sex, not the pleasure, that they are drawn to, and nearly every character has sex at some point with nearly every other character.
"Crash" is compelling, but not consistently so because none of it could be remotely real -- but it does feels that way.
There are also times that it's just silly. There are all kinds of public sex scenes, one of which takes place immediately following a crash that was witnessed by dozens of other drivers. No one stops, no emergency vehicles arrive, and Spader and Unger are free to go at it on the median underneath her over-turned convertible.
Chronenberg sustains an incredible tension throughout the film -- it feels constantly like the moment before impact. But in the end even he acknowledges the absurdity of his topic with the following dialogue from the aforementioned scene:
Unger: "I think I'm all right."
Spader: "Maybe next time, darling."
It's his nod to those who managed to sit through the disturbuing psychoses examined in "Crash" without begining to take it seriously. After all, it's fiction.