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Crash (1996)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

CRASH (1996)

Starring: James Spader, Deborah Kara Unger, Elias Koteas, Holly Hunter, Rosanna Arquette

Written By: David Cronenberg, J.G. Ballard (novel) Directed By: David Cronenberg

The Short Version

It’s Cronenberg.  Of course it’s weird.

And this time, also chock full – and I mean full – of dispassionate (but very much emphasized) sex!

Come to think of it, there’s not much passion of any kind in this movie.

I’m sure there’s a concept; I’m not sure there’s a plot.

Crash isn’t very good… but it’s not unwatchably bad, either.  If you’re in a certain frame of mind. Or wasted.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


I think you’ll find that it doesn’t matter what you put in your mouth and swallow this time around; it’ll be just as unmemorable no matter what it is or who it’s from.

Pairs Well With...


Circa mid-1990s: a pretentious yuppie drink without any real flavor or substance that was ultimately unsatisfying, but looked sexier than a wine cooler.

“Not a lot of action here.”

When the jury at the Cannes Film Festival had a look at David Cronenberg’s Crash, they gave it a special prize for “Originality, Daring, and Audacity.”  I’m reasonably certain that they had no idea what else to do with it, but that they knew they needed to react to the movie somehow.

I’m quite certain that no one involved would say so out loud, but I suspect that a large component of the “audacity” potion referred to the audacity shown by anyone who already had a paying career by even participating in this film.

I’m also quite certain that had Crash been made by a cadre of lesser stature – say an indie auteur and a generally unknown cast – it would have immediately been dismissed by the film community at large as a trashy, tasteless exploitation flick best shown in small, heavily air conditioned theatres.  (All right, so a lot of people dismissed it as such anyway.  And still would, given the chance.)

I’m reasonably certain that there’s a concept here, though not necessarily a plot. 

Beyond that… all I’m really certain of is that there are at least sixteen sex scenes in this flick (assuming one counts hand jobs), which outnumber onscreen crashes by about four to one, depending upon how one chooses to define a crash, and which amounts to roughly one “scene of sensuality” every five and three quarter minutes, adjusting for credits.

What, you actually want a story with that?  Well, okay; here goes…

James (James Spader, Wolf) and Catherine Ballard (Deborah Kara Unger, Highlander III) are a bored yuppie couple existing (despite their obvious affluence, once could barely consider these people to be “living”) in Toronto.  By day, they yawn their way through extramarital affairs, and when they get home, they drone the details of said affairs to each other while trying to spice up their own monotonous sex life.  Then one day an inattentive James gets himself into a nasty car accident, and things start to get funky.

He ends up becoming fascinated by car crashes, as does Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter, The Firm), the surviving victim of Mr. Ballard’s inattentive driving.  (Her plot device of a husband is windshield food.)  Despite the fact that she has every reason to hate him, Helen ends up screwing Ballard in the airport parking lot, after which the two embark upon a mutual voyage of personal discovery to explore their newly acquired fetish for car crashes and automotively based sex.  Guiding them on this journey is the monstrously obsessed Vaughn (Elias Koteas, Shutter Island), who freely admits that he’s psychotic, and spends the rest of the movie proving it.  At least when the action isn’t being dominated by nudity, pseudosex, and/or hand jobs.  All right; sometimes even then.

So, yeah.  That’s Crash.  Or Disinterested Hand Job.  Whatever it’s called.

As noted above, there is a concept here, if not a plot.  (I wonder if perhaps everyone was hoping the plot would just show up sometime between the first day of filming and the last day of post.  Oops.)  The noisy, messy, transformative collisions that are car crashes and sex certainly do have the potential to be fascinating analogs for each other, and to fit well into the standard Cronenberg obsession with the grotesque evolution of the organic into something more.  But the film’s antagonist, Vaughn, dismisses such intellectualization as so much pretentious bullshit, instead reducing it all to the lowest common denominator fallback of ‘socially unacceptable sex fetish’ (peppered, of course, by long expositions of his own pretentious bullshit).  Cronenberg, in turn, reduces Crash down to its lowest common denominator fallback of being a bizarre peep show (as seen through the lens of a camera alternately wielded by a technically precise art house horror enthusiast and a bored documentarian), and it all just goes downhill from there.

Or at least it would if it went anywhere at all… and therein lies the paradox.  David Cronenberg’s choices utterly damn and partially salvage Crash simultaneously.

First, the bad news.  All of the characters are dull, flat, one-dimensional bores.  They are utterly without depth, and exist only to express their collective boredom and partake in their collective fetish.  They have no past beyond the barest minimum required to put them in their respective starting positions (so to speak), nor do they appreciably develop as time goes on.  This depthlessness is reinforced by an alleged story that has the same traits as its characters , especially the one about non-development.  The blameless and undeniably talented cast is more than capable of acting past such things (let us at least give them the benefit of their resumes here), but they’re all obviously under strict orders to hold the monotonous line and keep all traces of personality in check so that the characters aren’t just one-dimensional: they’re one-dimensional somnambulists (especially during sex).  The dull monotony of the performances is in turn magnified by an utterly clinical directorial style better suited to either a precision engineering documentary or a sterile medical creep show.

One could call the net result little more than a hundred minutes’ worth of bored yuppies screwing each other in as many combinations as possible (preferably in vehicular settings), but even that sounds more exciting than Crash really is.  There is no passion here.  Even though the characters allegedly live for the rush of their fetish, the resultant sex is a matter of complete disinterest to them; they’re already bored the moment they start.  (Perhaps the most telling exchange of dialogue in the entire movie occurs when Dr. Remington, in the midst of screwing Mr. Ballard in the back seat of his car, asks “Have you come yet?” to which he replies in the negative and then says “I’m all right,” indicating that he doesn’t mind if she thinks the ride is over.  It doesn’t matter if he finishes what he starts, since any real pleasure disappears the as soon as things begin.  Only anticipation means anything.)  It doesn’t matter if it’s Mr. Ballard screwing his wife, Remington joining them for a three way circle jerk, or even Mr. Ballard diving in for the full on tongue kiss before proceeding to screw Mr. Vaughn; even when they remember to moan, there’s no pulse behind it.  I think it’s telling that during what is the longest and most explicit scene in the film, the thing that stands out most is how the director is obviously doing everything possible to make sure that Deborah Kara Unger’s breasts stay covered by a pillow.  Trust me, there’s plenty more that should be capturing one’s attention here, but…


The very fact that Crash is so shallow, so flat, and so clinically presented is also what makes it somewhat interesting to watch, if one is of a certain mindset.  Or drunk.  Or stoned.  It is indeed akin to a car crash, but in the one way that is least complimentary to the potential concept of the film: it’s the morbid fascination with staring at a complete wreck as one drives by.  There’s nothing good about it, but one can’t help but take a few minutes to watch anyway.

All right; so the fact that Deborah Kara Unger spends a fair amount of time undressed helps, too.  (The characters may be half-dead, but I’m not.)  It’s too bad that Cronenberg and his cameras treat her and everyone else as remarkably lifelike blow-up dolls, but hey.

Yes, yes, but what about the actual crashes, you say?  Utterly inconsequential.  The few that occur are given as little in-the-moment attention as possible; blink, and you’ll miss them entirely.  (Indeed, despite its title, Crash is the polar opposite of almost every other movie that has ever featured a car crash in this regard.)  The characters may yap about them between and during hand jobs, but… yeah.

And don’t even get me started about the crash that serves as the film’s alleged climax.  I get what’s supposed to have brought it on, but the story – and what little real acting made it past Cronenberg’s “no personality” policy – doesn’t support it.  (Not that the story supports much of anything, mind.)  To borrow from an earlier part of the script, it doesn’t come, but it really doesn’t matter.

And yet…  I could be convinced to watch Crash again.  By any reasonable standard, it’s horrible (but to be clear, not offensive for any of its consensual content; the warnings on the box are plain enough), but at the same time, it’s not as bad as the sum of its parts.  Okay, maybe it is, but still… if you’re of a certain mindset, and if you truly take the Doom Cheez Philosophy to heart, I think you might understand. 

If not, then you don’t want to come anywhere near this flick.  Ever.  Majority of the movie going population, you are excused.

Bottom line, Crash is weird.  Crash is shallow.  Crash goes nowhere.  Crash has a ton of sim sex and hand jobs but very little in the way of actual crashes.  The cast is blameless.  Most people won’t like it.  You’ve been warned.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, June, 2013

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