After surviving a car crash that killed the husband of one Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), James Ballard (James Spader) suddenly finds himself aroused at the idea of the car crash. He and Dr. Remington cross paths again, and upon discovering they share the same perihelia have sex in the front seat of James’ car. Dr. Remington introduces Ballard to Vaughan (Elias Koteas), the “leader” of a group of car crash fetishists. Vaughan and his clique recreate famous celebrity car wrecks, watch crash test dummy videos like it was porno and bang pretty much exclusively in cars. According to Vaughan, the car crash is a "fertilizing rather than a destructive event, mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity that's impossible in any other form”. Ballard fits right in. Ballard introduces his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) to Vaughan and his new found passion, and together they go deeper and deeper into this new, dangerous world of autoeroticism, always looking for their next crash.
You know when the first scene in a film involves a women pressing her breast against an airplane you’re in for something just a bit different. “Plotless” is a term I see thrown around a lot by opponents of this movie, and I guess that’s a fair assessment, as it’s doesn’t really build up to any major pay off or conclusion. What it is however, is a fascinating character study about a few twisted, yet undeniably intriguing individuals. These are obviously very empty people, who have become so bored with every aspect of their lives they have to resort to the most extreme things imaginable to find fulfillment, and temporary fulfillment at that. Much like in Cronenberg’s debut full length film Shivers when the inhabitants of the Starliner Towers apartment complex became infected with the parasite, compulsive sexuality took over and all sense of morality was lost. Those infected let no social taboo get in the way of their gratification. The characters in Crash are the same way, the crash is their parasite, it consumes them. They’ll stop at nothing to get their kicks, caring not for the safety of themselves or others (especially other drivers on the road), all societal norms thrown out the window. Like a seasoned drug addict, the rush is never strong enough, they’re always needing more. I think that was a huge reason why this film bothered so many people. The unsettling idea that there are people in the world with absolutely no limits. Couple that with the perverse sexuality of the film and you’ve got two good ingredients to make some uptight people very uncomfortable. It’s precisely that dangerous aspect of the characters personalities that makes Crash so intriguing. It’s impossible to look away, always wondering just how far will they take their obsessions and how far will Cronenberg take the viewer.
A lot of people complained that the film didn’t get too in depth when dealing with the characters and their fascination with crashes. As Ballard puts it, it’s all very satisfying to him, yet he doesn’t know why. These people are the way they are, that’s that. Cronenberg neither condones nor condemns their actions, making it all the more alienating. I think trying to make sense of it all would have lessened the impact, pun intended. Cronenberg has called Crash and existential love story and it a way that makes complete sense when you focus on the marriage of James and Catherine. Prior to James’ crash, the love life of the two had obviously lost it’s spark, as they both had extramarital affairs during the day, relating their experiences to each other later in the bed room. After James has his crash he realizes that way of getting off no longer works. When he introduces Catherine to this new turn on of his the two find a common bond once again. The films final moments signify that, in a touchingly depraved way that they do indeed love each other and they will both continue to chase down their ultimate crash, together.
Although based on the controversial novel by JG Ballard (whom the James Spader character is named after), thematically Crash is pure Cronenberg though and through. The eroticizing of the car crash, the ultimate fusion of man and machine, metal and flesh. It’s not just the crash, it’s all the connotations of the crash. Along with it comes the after effects, the scaring, the scabs and the deformities. The reshaping of the human body. The future, to quote Vaughan. This is most apparent in the character of Gabrielle, played by Rosanna Arquette. Obviously a crash victim, her legs are encased in huge metal braces, in essence making her half-metal, with a large vulva like scar down the back of her leg. The ideal women for Vaughan’s “project. The car itself can been seen as an aphrodisiac. There’s a scene where Vaughan picks up a prostitute and while he does his thing in the back seat of his car, Cronenberg cuts back and forth between Vaughan and the hooker and Ballard driving, caressing the steering wheel, and during the lead up to one of the films most notorious scenes, Ballard and Gabrielle look at new cars as foreplay. A good majority of the sex scenes in the film are completely void of eroticism, as the sex these people engage in is just as mechanical and emotionless as they are. Psychical collisions, nothing more. The one true passionate love scene is the final one between James and Catherine, as it’s the one time where it feels as if both partners are truly involved, with more than just their bodies.
Crash defiantly shows off how good an eye Cronenberg has. This is a slick, sexy looking film, dare I say the best looking film Cronenberg has done. It’s very pleasing to look at, yet at the same time it gives off this aura that’s as cold and distant as it’s characters. That had to be intentional on Cronenberg’s part. There’s an amazing sequence where James, Catherine and Vaughan drive past a massive wreck on the highway. James stops the car while Vaughan eagerly rushes out of the car to observe and takes photos of the wreckage and victims, taking Catherine along with him, having her pose for him in the damaged cars. The way Cronenberg shot this sequence, the lighting mixed in with the heaps of twisted metal and smoke emitting from the cars, a breathtaking shot of a women slowly turning her face to the camera revealing shards of glass sticking out of her face, all the while the films main theme performed by Howard Shore (which couldn’t be more perfect and fitting) plays over it, only Cronenberg could make such destruction seem so attractive. The car wash sex scene that follows is beautifully photographed and it’s not just because of Unger’s body parts either. The way Cronenberg focuses on not just Vaughan’s manhandling of Catherine, but the environment, inside the car and out, the shots of Ballard looking on intently through the rearview mirror. It’s hard to describe without just listing things and I don’t want to do anymore of that. One of those “you just gotta see it” things.
I’m sure you’ve read many reviews where the writer calls a certain actor or actress’ performance “brave”. There couldn’t be a more suitable word for the performances in this film. A huge round of applause for the entire cast, as it sure took a lot of balls to play these people. James Spader, who is no stranger to psychosexual roles, underplays it as Ballard, yet that reservation was perfect when playing a person as soulless as Ballard. There’s a particular telling moment when Vaughan tells him he wants him to get a tattoo as part of the “project”, and almost without any hesitation whatsoever he blankly asks “Where do you think this should go?” Deborah Kara Unger portrays Catherine as an archetypal ice queen. Out of all the characters, Catherine is probably the most distant, spending most of the film with the blankest look on her face. Unger’s performance makes Catherine one of the most interesting characters, the final scene of the film reveals a ton about her personality, and it might be more disturbed that her husbands. Equally cold is Holly Hunter’s Dr. Remington. Never once does she express any sadness over the death of her husband, hell the only brief mentions of her recently deceased husband were from James and Catherine. Hunter plays it straight, much like Spader and it fits. There’s only one thing on her mind and we know it. And then there was Vaughan. Elias fuckin’ Koteas. Simply saying he stole the show would be the understatements of understatements. Vaughan is a man who embraces his depravities, the look of lust in his eyes when he stares down Ballard’s scars, the almost orgasmic tone in his voice when he describes the details of a crash, the way he caresses cold metal like a lover. Koteas plays him with glee, emitting untouchable charisma, stealing every scene he’s in with complete ease. It’s a crime he didn’t get an award for this.
Crash won the Special Jury Prize at the 1996 Caanes Film Festival for “daring originality, and audacity”, the same festival where members of the audience walked out on it. Daring originality and audacity. Those three words sum up Crash pretty much perfectly. It’s obviously not for everybody. The extreme sexual fetishism, the lack of a story and it’s overall bleakness will turn away many, but for those who enjoy films from off the beaten path should take right too it. Cronenberg was the perfect choice to direct this. I don’t think any other director could have handled Ballard’s material quite like he did, and Ballard agreed. Crash is a unique experience that exposes us to some pretty dark aspects of the human mind, what people could do when so called “normalcy” has lost all hold and the dangerous melding of sex and technology. Crash may be cold, but like all Cronenberg films, it will stay with you long after viewing. 16 years later and it’s still polarizing viewers.