Crash (1996)

“It’s all very satisfying and I’m not sure I understand why,” James Spader’s protagonist Ballard quips off softly as he surveys pictures of various car wrecks about halfway through the film. Ballard is speaking of the sexual satisfaction he gets from car wrecks, in all forms. Reenactments, photographs, and using a police scanner to “stumble” upon a fresh accident. For reasons that are obviously different I found Ballard’s statement to be mostly true of Crash as a film. 

The first shot of the film tracks through an empty hangar, weaves through and between various airplanes, and eventually hovers on Catherine Ballard (played bravely and boldly by Deborah Kara Unger). She lifts her right breast out of her bra and rubs it on the hood of a small airplane. A nameless man comes up behind her and they have sex. James Ballard is a film producer. Both he and his wife have jobs. “Lives” some would call it. But David Cronenberg, unsurprisingly, seems only concerned with the bizarre, the grotesque, and the bizarrely grotesquely sexual.  As chilly and detached as much of the auteur’s body of work is Crash might be his chilliest.

James and Catherine have an open relationship. They seem sexually unsatisfied (“did you come?” Ballard deadpans to his wife in their first on-screen scene together. “No,” she says, flatly). All of the film’s conversations resemble this exchange. James is soon a victim of a rough car accident and is hospitalized and quickly becomes fascinated and excited by the wrecks. He soon meets Vaughan, a stuntman who reenacts old car wrecks for an underground audience. But Vaughan is much more than that. Elias Koteas plays him both despicably and enticingly. To use the old cliche: he’s like the sun. He delivers every line of dialogue as if he’s in the middle of sex, breathy and choppy. Vaughan is easily the most fascinating character in the movie. In fact, he may be the only character.

I am not the first nor last to make the comparison, I’m sure, but Crash could very nearly be a softcore pornographic film. It is rated NC-17 and features consistent and numerous sexual liaisons, often filmed in long takes. The characters sans Vaughan are robotic and emotionally detached, as if acted out by amateurs in a smut film. Cronenberg crafts all of this to explore human sexual obsession. His focus is narrow and obsessive, concentrating only on the sexual obsessions and desires of his characters. Sex is almost always one focus of a David Cronenberg film but with Crash it is the only focus. The actors all do a fine job but there are no real characters to be seen here.

Crash certainly makes its point. The pervasive sex, chilly detachment, and robotic characters may convolute and handicap the film but Cronenberg’s examination of the destructive capabilities of human desire is sharp. The characters disregard and excuse everything in search for all that turns them on. Audiences surely won’t relate to the specific focus of the sexual desires (car accidents), but disregarding logic to satisfy sexual desires is new to no one.

★★★½

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