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Race and coincidence: what brings people together 

The new movie Crash opens and closes with the incident of the title, a relatively minor collision of the sort that occurs anywhere in the country on any day of the week, in this case on an unseasonably cold evening in Los Angeles in December. As the long flashback that constitutes the body of the picture shows, this particular crash results from a remarkably complicated series of events that in one way or another draws a large number of people into confrontations of varying levels of violence.

Everything in Crash --- action, characters, themes --- revolves around the enduring, fundamental American dilemma of race in all its manifestations. The initial automobile accident, for example, almost immediately explodes into an exchange of ethnic taunts between a Chinese and a Hispanic woman; when two young African Americans carjack the District Attorney's SUV, the victim is more concerned about his political standing in the black community than about prosecuting the crime; a bigoted cop (Matt Dillon) pulls a black couple over for the sheer fun of it, bullying the husband, a successful television director, and groping the wife simply to assert his authority and work out his malice; a Mexican locksmith attracts suspicion in one situation and nearly dies in another merely because of his nationality.

The constant sense of racial enmity and distrust that permeates just about every level of the world of the film results in fear, hatred, and often, violence. It explores with real sensitivity the consequences of the uneasy tensions of modern urban life, the ubiquitous presence of guns, the threat of injury or death, suggesting a sense of prolonged and inescapable anxiety, as if no one can ever escape the dangerous business of simply living in America in our time.

At the same time, the movie also demonstrates the familiar, sometimes absurd, sometimes tragic politicizing of contemporary race relations. To counter the possibility of alienating his black constituency through being a crime victim, the D.A. decides to give an award to a dark-skinned fireman, but then learns that the man is not only not black, but is in fact an Iraqi named Saddam, not exactly the best choice to boost his political career. When a white cop shoots a black cop who's dealing drugs, the prosecutors pressure another black detective (Don Cheadle) into covering up evidence, a profound betrayal of justice and principle, again in order not to exacerbate racial tensions. 

The structure of Crash creates its tension and violence, but also generates its intellectual and emotional content, so that architecture in a sense becomes meaning. The dozen or so assorted characters --- black, white, Chinese, Latino, Middle Eastern --- who occupy the foreground of the movie all end up encountering each other in some way, colliding, intersecting, linked through the nexus of race and the capricious currents of coincidence.

Ultimately, the picture suggests, we are all connected, for the most part, as it turns out, in our fear, pain, and loneliness, and the terrible mischancing of human action, for which the script offers little in the way of solution.

Now and then some characters achieve a kind of diluted redemption, mostly again through sheer chance, and the odd, random possibilities submerged beneath the surface of ordinary life. Matt Dillon's racist cop rescues the woman he had harassed from a burning car, then resumes his usual racial hostility even while attempting to alleviate his sick father's suffering; her husband, the TV director, helps one of the carjackers avoid arrest, which enables the crook to perform something like an honorable act. On the other hand, another character's gesture of kindness and simple decency goes disastrously wrong, ending in death and inconsolable sorrow.

The large ensemble cast includes a number of quite recognizable performers, including not only Don Cheadle, Brendan Fraser, and Matt Dillon, but also a really big star, the glamorous Sandra Bullock. Perhaps because they must share screen time with a great many people, the actors generally behave with competence, playing their parts within the constraints of their characters and the demands of the intricate plot.

The location, the size of the cast, and the complexity of the action recall Robert Altman's Short Cuts, which may provide the model for Crash; with more judicious editing, and quicker cutting, Paul Haggis might have equaled Altman, but in fairness, he comes very close in an honest, complex, and sometimes painful examination of one of the great American subjects.

Crash(R) is playing at Canandaigua Theatres, Cinemark Tinseltown, Culver Ridge Cinemas, Little Theatres, Pittsford Plaza.

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