In Paul Haggis’s Academy-Award winning Crash, Don Cheadle philosophizes about the lack of human contact in our modern world in what became the film’s signature quote. “I think we miss that touch so much,” he sleepily emotes, “that we crash into each other, just to feel something.”
It’s a lazy metaphor that caught on like wildfire with viewers of a certain age (read: boomers). It’s also repetitive, because David Cronenberg had already fucked us up with his superior Crash almost a decade prior. Not that the two movies have that much in common or anything, but the maudlin L.A. caricatures in Haggis’s world have nothing on the freaks that populate Cronenberg’s dystopia – here are people that truly feel NOTHING and literally lust after and get off on the violent wreckage of car crashes. And while the brief moment of fame Haggis’s Crash enjoyed quickly faded (does anybody actually watch that film anymore?), the scandal, shock and suggestive power of Cronenberg’s Crash will never fade.
It’s easy to forget what a stir Crash truly caused upon premiering at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival. Greeted by boos and jeers at its screening (although what film at Cannes isn’t?), it was eventually given a Special Jury Prize “for originality, for daring and for audacity”, despite even offending then-jury president Francis Ford Coppola. From there, a concerted campaign to block its theatrical release gained traction, from censors to theater owners to Mr. Ted Turner himself, who delayed its U.S. release through his company Fine Line Features for a good half year because it ruffled his feathers so much. I mean, it’s not every day that a film gets honored by both Cahiers du Cinema and the Adult Video News Awards.
People just really can’t handle sex (especially of the perverted kind) on screen, I guess. During an era in which the NC-17 rating was introduced to bring a little more skin to the movie going experience, there’s no doubt that Crash was almost certainly the most pornographic high-profile film to emerge. Tackling J.G. Ballard’s controversial 1973 novel five years after wrangling some semblance out of Naked Lunch, Cronenberg staged the author’s dystopic tale as a nonstop series of sex scenes featuring a motley crew of characters getting it on with each other, getting it on with cars and getting it on with death. What might be ridiculous in the hands of another director is rendered queasily dangerous (and, dare I say, even intermittently sexy) here, set in a pallid Toronto where everyone walks around in a constant state of half-sleep.
You’d think a story like this would be perfectly tailored to Los Angeles (Ballard and the book are British, however) and its car dependency, but Cronenberg defiantly places the action in his hometown, exploiting the clinical coldness of Toronto that has always served as the perfect backdrop for his work. Being a resident myself, it’s great to see roadways like the Gardiner Expressway underpass and the DVP squeeze, where I have spent countless hours stuck in traffic, turned into playgrounds of doom.
As always, Cronenberg wrangled an eclectic group of stars to go along for the ride. James Spader, in those last few years before he started to get fat and lazy on TV, plays the central figure, Jim Ballard, with a mixture of boyish timidity and that trademark sleaze that defined his career in the ‘80s. Deborah Kara Unger, as his enigmatic wife Catherine, oscillates between being in total control and then losing it completely as she eternally chases the next thrill, while Holly Hunter and Rosanna Arquette strap on some leg braces and get kinky. And is there any actor who’s more of a national treasure than Elias Koteas? He plays unhinged ringleader Vaughan with the intensely scary energy of a young De Niro and the signature sequence where he presents a recreation of the James Dean wreck still slaps after all these years.
All of Cronenberg’s typical predilections are present – sadomasochism, fetishistic sexuality, vaginal-shaped wounds, the melding of flesh and technology – and it’s a testament to his talent that it still feels so transgressive, in a contemporary culture where shock value is commonplace. With the human race currently pursuing its own mass death wish, the themes of emotional and physical desensitization are almost more relevant than ever, capping things off on a nihilistic note that somehow still feels upbeat in its determination.
Watching it again after all these years, I was ultimately struck by how haunting Crash feels, with Howard Shore’s icily perfect score sealing the vibe. In the aftermath of the car accident that kicks off the events of the film, Spader’s Ballard comments uneasily about noticing a troubling increase in the amount of traffic on the roads, a bad omen of sorts. In Cronenberg’s beautifully bleak vision, maybe Toronto is just some form of the afterlife, with all the lost souls driving around endlessly through the streets.
The new 4K restoration of Crash opens August 14 in select theatres across Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
- Release Date: 8/14/2020