In Paul Haggis' Los Angeles, good and evil Crash into each other.

We're No Angels 

In Paul Haggis' Los Angeles, good and evil Crash into each other.

Much of Crash, an L.A.-stories portmanteau about the suffocating embrace of racism, is hard to watch and harder still to listen to. Director and co-writer Paul Haggis' characters say and do things they shouldn't. Theirs are internal monologues shouted over bullhorns -- lines peppered with racial epithets and soaked in the greasy sweat of hatred for anyone who gets in the way. Theirs are the actions of people who do bad things while believing they're also doing the right thing. These folks -- cops and shopkeepers and carjackers and wives of district attorneys and just average people living average lives -- have lost their senses of right and wrong in a city of angels populated by devils.

No one is safe, and no one is entirely innocent or guilty. A gun-store owner (Jack McGee) accuses a Middle Eastern shopkeeper (Shaun Toub) of being a terrorist ("Yo, Osama, plan a jihad on your own time!"); the Middle Eastern shopkeeper suspects a Hispanic locksmith (Michael Peña) of breaking into and trashing his store; the Hispanic locksmith is accused of being a gang member by the white woman (Sandra Bullock) whose locks he's changing. Two young black men (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges and Larenz Tate), storming out of a restaurant after being made to wait two hours, accuse white folks of being scared of them, then carjack a white couple (Bullock and Brendan Fraser) climbing into their gleaming new SUV. A white cop (Matt Dillon) pulls over a black couple (Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton) because they are black and verbally humiliates the husband while feeling up his wife; the cop's partner (Ryan Phillippe) is appalled and asks for a transfer, only to commit an act of violence against a black man because his skin color makes him suspicious, no matter how innocent his actions or intentions.

And on and on it goes, this cycle of viciousness that consumes most who step in its path. Yet you cannot despise these people, because Haggis (writer of Million Dollar Baby) presents them not as caricatures but as flesh-and-blood, fucked-up folks trying their best to be their best, despite their prejudices. The whole film grows out of a line uttered by Dillon, as a cop named Ryan whose actions are loathsome but who is not entirely unlikable or unredeemable. "You think you know who you are," he tells his naive young partner, Hanson (Phillippe). "You have no idea." The line applies to the entire cast, from Don Cheadle's detective, Graham, a good man harboring an awful secret and his own pack of prejudices, to Ludacris' carjacking hood to Fraser's upright district attorney. There's bad to be found in the good people and evil lurking even in the righteous.

Like Magnolia or Short Cuts, Crash is built upon the principle that we're all connected to the strangers who briefly pass through our lives. There is no such thing as coincidence, only fate. When Ryan assaults Newton's Christine, he nearly ruins her marriage. After the assault, she shouts at her husband, Cameron (Howard), claiming he acted weak by letting that cop stick his hand up her skirt. Cameron will not stand for her insults. "You need to find out what it's really like to be black," he snaps at his light-skinned wife, who reacts as though she's been violated all over again. But Ryan and Christine will meet again, under different circumstances, and the villain acts like a hero this time, restoring the faith of a woman who will now have no idea what to believe ever again.

Haggis, directing a stellar cast in an important movie, reminds us that it's the small disasters that ultimately do us in -- that moment when we sell our souls for the promise of something better, when we say something we can never take back. Crash reminds us we're not safe from the outside world or from ourselves, that we're all susceptible to foolishness, selfishness, avarice, cowardice and, most of all, ignorance.

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