Screenplay : David Cronenberg (based on the novel by J.G. Ballard)
MPAA Rating : NC-17
Year of Release : 1996
Stars : James Spader (James Ballard), Deborah Kara Unger (Catherine Ballard), Holly Hunter (Dr. Helen Remington), Elias Koteas (Vaughan), Rosanna Arquette (Gabrielle)
It's rare that a controversial film deserves all the heated debate and hype surrounding its release, so when a film like David Cronenberg's "Crash" comes along, it's a shock in the truest sense.
Here is a film that is genuinely disturbing, but not for the reasons you would immediately think of. While the sexual lives of the characters are deviant and often times repulsive, it's the film's cold, calculating style that is its most offensive feature. While it is brilliantly crafted on a technical level, "Crash" is completely devoid of any human emotion, which only serves to distance the viewer farther than he or she already is.
Based on the 1973 novel by J.G. Ballard, "Crash" is about a small group of people who equate sex with violent car wrecks. The book spoke of "the meaning of the whiplash injuries and roll-over" and "the ecstasies of head-on collisions." In reality, it is doubtful there is anybody who shares this particular fetish. There are sadomasochists who feel pain is pleasure, and there are those who are turned on by speed; but I have a hard time understanding the connection between sexual arousal and crashing head-on at sixty miles-an-hour. There are people who find stimulation in the risk of death, but the people in "Crash" are only aroused by an actual collision. Simply flirting with death doesn't cut it -- you have to dance with it.
The two main characters are James Ballard (James Spader) and his wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), who live in a passionless, meaningless marriage. When the film opens, they are having sex, but with other people in public places. When they come home, they share their encounters with each other in low, monotone voices that betray little interest in anything, including each other.
One night, James is driving home when collides head-on with another car. In a bravura sequence that throws the impact of the wreck on the audience, Cronenberg shows the man in the other car propelled through the windshield into James' car. When James looks up in a wounded daze, he catches the eye of Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), the injured wife of the dead man who now rests in his passenger seat.
James and Helen meet again in the hospital, and later in the car impound lot. James offers to drive Helen home, and before we know it, they are engaged in a sudden sexual outburst in his car. Apparently, their earlier crash sparked something between them, something that is not fully explored until they become entangled with Vaughan.
Vaughan (Elias Koteas) is a man obsessed with car wrecks. He is something of a performance artist who recreates famous car crashes, like the ones that killed James Dean and Jayne Mansfield. When he passes a car wreck on the highway, he does more than just slow down to gawk -- he actually gets out and takes pictures. He lives in a seedy apartment with a women named Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), another car crash victim whose legs are locked in metal braces over her fishnet panty hose.
While there is an intense amount of sex in the film (both hereto- and homosexual), and it is all explicit, "Crash" is not quite what we expect from a film labeled pornographic. There is actually surprisingly little nudity. Instead, the characters and the camera are drawn to other objects that serve as physical extensions of the characters' debased sexuality.
In the opening scene, Catherine is having sex with another man, but she seems more interested in the feel of an airplane wing against her breast than the man kissing her legs. Cronenberg's camera pans across the mangled remains of wrecked automobiles like another filmmaker might pan across a naked body. However, if a body is to be shown, it must be broken. So, when the camera decides to pay attention to human flesh, it lingers on James's broken leg held together with pins, and Gabrielle's legs encased in braces. The camera also concentrates heavily on scars and scabs and cuts and bruises, all resulting from car crashes. In one particularly sick sequence, James actually appears to be having sex with a large, vagina-like wound in the back of Gabrielle's leg.
"Crash" might have been a better movie if it had given us characters to deal with. Their actions are hard enough to digest, especially since there is no glimmer of human emotion in their eyes. The characters in "Crash" are like the zombies in George A. Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" in both form and function -- they wander aimlessly through the film with lifeless eyes, indulging their primal urges for grotesque behavior, never changing. The film is stagnant primarily because the characters neither advance nor regress; they merely exchange one perversity for another.
And for a film filled wall to wall with sex, Cronenberg manages to drain every ounce of erotic excitement. When these people copulate, it's droll and mechanical, almost as if there is some deep force within them forcing them to do it against their will. They never once betray enjoyment, and we get the feeling that eroticism is a dirty word.
As a portrait of a group of very sick, sexually dysfunctional people, "Crash" is a masterpiece of its own kind. But I have to ask: is that enough? It seems to me that in order to justify the kind of repulsive depravity that goes on in this film, there must be something more. There must be a theme or a point beyond exploring the sick and demented for its own sake. At least in an equally disturbing films like Abel Ferrara's "Bad Lieutenant," it offered a hope of redemption; even Pasolini's "Salo" was a political metaphor for the atrocities of Fascism, and not just an excuse for brutality. Unfortunately, Cronenberg does not give us anything more than the surface. What happens is what happens, and that's the end of it.
In the end, "Crash" never adds up to anything more than its separate parts. When the film is over, we feel no more enlightened to the human dilemma than we were when we entered the theater. And, unless you are as sick as the people on screen, we were certainly not entertained.
©1997 James Kendrick