Crash (1996)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #341

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Number of Views: Two
Release Date: October 4, 1996 (Canada)
Sub-Genre: Cult Film
Country of Origin: Canada/United Kingdom
Budget: $9,000,000
Box Office: $2,038,450
Running Time: 100 minutes
Director: David Cronenberg
Producers: Jeremy Thomas, David Cronenberg, Robert Lantos
Screenplay: David Cronenberg
Based on Crash by J. G. Ballard
Special Effects: Michael Kavanagh, Stephan Dupuis, Dawn Rivard
Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky
Score: Howard Shore
Editing: Ronald Sanders
Studios: The Movie Network, Telefilm Canada
Distributors: Fine Line Features, Alliance Communications, Recorded Picture Company
Stars: James Spader, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas, Deborah Kara Unger, Rosanna Arquette, Peter MacNeill, Yolande Julian, Cheryl Swarts, Judah Katz, Nicky Guadagni, Ronn Sarosiak, Boyd Banks

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Suggested Audio Candy

Howard Shore “Crash”

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What do the majority of us do when you witness a roadside wreck on the opposing carriageway? I can answer that for you as I have been stuck in traffic countless times while fellow motorists gawk excitedly at the catastrophe which has played out within eye-shot. I’m not about to lie; there is a faint amount of disenchantment on realization that the obstruction has been caused by little more than a light fender prang. It’s not that I wish harm on another; heaven forbid anybody lost their lives during the accident. But, should there be fatalities, then why am I slowed to 30kmph and searching for confirmation of absolute destruction? It’s a rather uncomfortable poser to ask yourself but, when you have a quizmaster like David Cronenberg on hand to offer enlightenment, it’s one which I’d gladly raise my hand for.

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Taboo or not taboo; that is the question. In the UK there was uproar upon the release of Cronenberg’s provocative pile-up and the press called for it to be banned on account of it being little more than a “car crash sex film.” A psychologist was called in to determine whether copycat behavior was a likelihood and all claims were dismissed. By the time it eventually hit the UK marketplace, passed fully uncensored by the BBFC I might add, the whole term “there’s no such thing as bad press” had added resonance and the hype machine hit its full stride. Ironically, the film is still exempt from sale or theatrical distribution in Westminster to this very day. Stiff upper lip old beans. Why not ban Bambi too in case any pyromaniacs get ideas above their station? While you’re at it, E.T. will have to go too. We don’t want our children aiding and abetting extraterrestrials should they choose to land in our hometowns. Let’s all just carve out our eyes and watch Once Upon A Time With America using braille. Fucking clown shoes.

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Anyhoots, I’m not letting those ignorant bastards spoil my appraisal. Think happy thoughts. Fatal car crashes; that’s us back on the highway and I’ve still got plenty left in the tank. Crash may well have received its fair share of boos when unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival and polarized audiences ever since but there has never been a doubt in my mind that it is the Canadian’s finest hour and forty minutes. Commonly dubbed as auto-erotica, his translation of an original novel by J. G. Ballard will repulse as much as it arouses. This was always his intention. It is the repulsion that fascinates as there is a fine line between the two which Crash explores brilliantly.

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The film’s central character James Ballard is played by former brat-pack fringe member and all round fine actor James Spader. If you asked me for five vintage Spader performances then they would be as Steff in John Hughes’ Pretty in Pink, Rip in Marek Kanievska’s Less Than Zero, Graham Dalton in Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Mr Gray in Steven Shainberg’s Secretary, and Jack Pozzi in Philip Haas’ wonderful The Music of Chance. Despite all of his numerous masterful turns, it is his portrayal of Ballard that resonates strongest. After being involved in a head-on collision which leaves the other driver on a mortuary slab, his life becomes perpetually altered.

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His open relationship with wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) begins to take a different direction as the pair become introduced to others whose lives have also been touched by automobile-related tragedy. After a chance meeting with Vaughan (Elias Koteas) during James’ rehabilitation, he is soon introduced to fellow kooks Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette) and Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) who is the survivor of the very accident involving Ballard which killed her husband. James and Catherine find themselves inexplicably drawn to their new friends and, being sexually liberated, engage in all manner of steamy interludes with the intoxicating scent of burning alloy always nearby.

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The relationship between James and Catherine, while often suggesting them to be two passing ships in the night, is beautifully observed. Fellow Canadian Unger impressed me massively in David Fincher’s awesome The Game but here so much more is asked of the actress. Her performance is restrained in some areas but utterly open in others. Dialogue plays second fiddle to the story she tells with her eyes and she proves the ideal grounding for Spader’s character. Both Koteas and Hunter are also spot-on but it is Arquette’s Gabrielle who provides perhaps our most fascinating pawn. Luc Besson’s The Big Blue and Martin Scorsese’s After Hours are two of my all-time favorite movies, while Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan isn’t a thousand miles away, so ten minutes with Rosanna is all it takes to flood my engine. Clad in leather leg braces and wearing any body supports like an S&M badass, she is mesmerizing each time she limps onto the screen.

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Crash makes you feel like a voyeur peeking in through the blinds but always knows your whereabouts. It likes you watching; wants you to get off with it and cum hard when it cums hard. It is deliberately paced so as to make you feel like you’re passing a collision and any sleek paintwork is provided by fleeting lines of dialogue and a truly masterful score by previous collaborator Howard Shore. It is unlike any other film in existence and is Cronenberg’s first true vehicle to transcend genre entirely. It also marks something of a departure for the filmmaker and films such as A History of Violence and Eastern Promises show that the days of being pigeon-holed a body horror director are way back at the last rest stop.

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Not everyone is going to agree with my affectionate appraisal of this hugely controversial piece of work. Many of you will despise it and you certainly won’t be alone on that count. For Keeper however, and I regard myself a steady and considerate driver, occasionally I unfasten my seat belt just for a moment just to feel that same exhilaration. The way in which Cronenberg approaches each wreckage, refusing to comment, so as to allow the viewer to engage actively and gauge their own response makes this all the more prevailing after the credits roll. He’s more than a filmmaker, he’s a teacher. And that means homework assignments. I despised homework as a child and always left it until the night before to half-heartedly complete it. But in the case of Crash, I’ll gladly pull over on the hard shoulder.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Grue isn’t necessarily the correct term and, in Crash, it’s all about the injury detail. The moment we approach each subsequent wreckage and peer in through the window at the carnage within packs one hell of a mighty punch. Should you be feeling sensual at this point then fret not as Spader, Hunter, Arquette, and most critically, Unger are more than obliging and ready to court that hot wax.

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