On a sweet but skimpy featurette, Thandie Newton enthuses over how Paul Haggis' script for Crash piles up tonnes of coincidences, connections and cockeyed contrivances, but still manages to feel organic. She's right, too. After his scathingly lean script for Million Dollar Baby, Haggis sports a helmer's hat and spreads out here, casting his net over an atomised Los Angeles, joining the dots on a theme of pressure-pot racial tension and driving the film's emotional after-kick home without any dents.
Not that you haven't bumped into this kind of story before. Anyone even faintly familiar with Short Cuts, Magnolia and Grand Canyon will recognise Crash as one of a sub-genre of movies that transform a diffuse metropolis into a network of unlikely, awkward, fatal, redemptive or revelatory intimacies. Crash even dares to lay out its formal and thematic stall from the off, when Don Cheadle's detective talks about how people in LA crash into each other because no one there ever touches. (So no, this isn't to be confused with that Cronenberg flick in which the crash metaphor is all about touching. After a road traffic accident...)
But is it over-determined? Take a deep breath for the plot-plunge: Haggis' LA is populated with disconnected, multi-racial characters, spread out over a dozen-ish plot strands, who crash into each other over 36 hours, reveal their prejudices and are then shown to be near-huggably human. Exhibit A: a policewoman (Jennifer Esposito) resents being described as "Mexican" but mocks a Chinese motorist talking about a "blake light". Exhibit B: Matt Dillon's hard-assed patrolman gropes a jittery Newton before later rescuing her from a potentially fatal prang. Exhibit C: an Iranian shop-owner (Shaun Toub) is driven to arms by both racial harassment and his own prejudices. And so on...
How do you navigate all that without seeming forced? The only way to get it safely into the parking lot is by bringing supple writing to life with fully fleshed-out acting and careful directing. And for the most part, Crash pulls it off. Every castmember takes the wheel impeccably, from Sandra Bullock as a rich bitch who's not so much congenial as a personality-demolition ma'am, to Terrence Howard as a black TV director who buckles after years of saying yes to the Man. And while Haggis may not be the subtlest driver, he plays his film's excesses economically, unifying its bulk by shooting in patient, intimate close-ups and never cutting up his cast unduly.
Sure, Crash is over-plotted and overstuffed. Agonise over its coincidences and you might feel like you're being taken for a ride. By contrast, this DVD is under-powered, with only a 10-minute Making Of and a lucid but slightly back-slappy natter-track to sell it. But there's no denying Crash's potency as a big, mainstream film with plenty to say about how people connect and disconnect. And in a time when too many multiplex movies are lacking both ideas and direction, there's something noble about Crash's over-ambition.