Crash (1996): Canada/United Kingdom – directed by David Cronenberg
Rated NC-17 by the MPAA – contains nudity, sex, car crashes, odd fetishes
Note: This film contains some mature content to which the review may refer.
David Cronenberg, in films reaching as far back as Stereo [review here] has revealed his fascination with sex and its role in human existence. Almost everything that he has done since has explored aspects of sexuality, from Rabid to eXistenZ. Crash is the apex of Cronenberg’s fixation and exploration with the subject.
James (James Spader) and Catherine Ballard (Deborah Kara Unger) are a couple, seemingly bored with their lives. I say this because it must be inferred from how they approach sex, and is not explicitly stated by the film. Separately they try out different partners on different surfaces (like the metallic nose of an airplane) and then report the results back their spouse. They do not abstain from sex with each other; if anything, their personal sex life is more robust as a result.
That’s not saying that anyone in the film seems to enjoy their own sexual activity. It appears that it fills a need they have, a craving or an emptiness that is difficult to sate. At times this fixation goes far beyond mere sexual activity. And this is where the cars are introduced.
James is a director of Public Service Announcements regarding car safety. One day while driving home he gets distracted and swerves into the oncoming lane of traffic. The resulting wreck leaves him severely injured and kills the other driver. The only other survivor is the fatality’s wife, Helen (Holly Hunter).
The two of them form a strange bond as a result of the accident. They meet again while looking at the wrecked cars in the impound lot. Pretty soon James discovers that Helen is interested in a lot more than just sex, and together they embark on a strange journey through a seedier side of humanity.
Vaughan (Elias Koteas) is fascinated with the odd transmutations that arise during car accidents, as human flesh and man-made steel collide and contort. He holds live stagings of infamous car wrecks, including the accident that killed James Dean. To a quiet crowd he gently describes the situation and vehicles involved in the crash before playing the role of Dean’s mechanic and getting in the passenger seat of the Porsche Spyder. As the film progresses, he, James, Catherine, and Helen, along with one of Vaughan’s followers, Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), explore sex and car accidents together in a world where nothing is taboo.
Crash is a strange film, in a way. I can’t imagine it being made by anyone but Cronenberg, and I’m not sure he would have found funding in too many countries besides Canada. It is blatantly uncommercial; there is little explanation for anything that goes on, and few likeable characters. This is not a bad thing, if only the film went somewhere with its themes. As the last third approaches the characters’ journey becomes clouded, and the few events that occur appear to have no purpose.
It’s not that Crash is a bad film. It is made with Cronenberg’s expected technical ability, with strong and convincing performances from the entire cast in roles that require utter commitment. The primary shortcoming is that the themes involving humanity’s sexuality violently colliding with technology and industry become diffused as the film nears its ending.
It’s hard to say who will find the film most appealing. There is a lot of strong and graphic sexual content, though it is not porn. Those looking for the mere exploitation of naked skin would do better looking elsewhere. It’s hard to say whether those looking for deep truths about human sexuality will find answers here, although it could be that I have entirely misunderstood the film. While technically proficient, Crash loses its direction about two-thirds of the way through. As a result, the final half hour feels long and unpleasant, especially as the film does not appear to have a destination in mind.