Movie Review : Crash (1996)
There are two movies titled Crash. One is about white people trying not to be racist and failing. That one won the Oscar over Brokeback Mountain in 2006. The other is about white people having sex while crashing their car. And then having sex again, because they think bruises and wounds are arousing. If you've seen the latter, it's impossible to mix them up. It's also a much better film, whatever the Academy might think of it. Why would anyone want to watch a movie about having broken sex while crashing your car? Well, it's an interesting story that began when British author J.G Ballard had one of his fucked up ideas...
Crash is the story of James Ballard (the great James Spader), a sexually jaded man who gets into a car crash. He breaks his kneecaps and kills a passenger in the other car. During his hospital stay, he is visited by a strange man (the equally great, Montreal-born Elias Koteas) who photographs his braces and asks many questions about the crash. While sexually bonding with Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) - the other survivor of the accident - Ballard finds out the man is Vaughan, who runs a cult of people obsessed with the sexual possibilities of car crashes, an idea that gives our protagonist a huge boner.
So, why would anyone be interested in a movie featuring lots of deviant, broken up sex in the twisted, smoking carcasses of crash cars? It's a fair question. It's not that different than any other violent fetish, where participants find excitement in their (sometimes symbolic) self-destruction. The curious variable here is the car, which originally symbolized modernity in J.G Ballard's novel. In the 1970s, modern men were driving cars to work. Crash is an allegory for a primal, destructive modernity where people embrace technology to a point they become embedded with each other. Men become machine and machines become sexualized.
It's fucked up, but it's not that far from the truth. The thematic fetish of Crash is not an invention.
Since Crash is an adaptation, so it's always going to be compared to its origin material. And it would be almost impossible to do justice to J.G Ballard's novel, which spends two hundred pages sexually describing wrecked cars and morbidly describing sex. So, the fucked up intimacy and voyeurism awkwardly translates to the screen. It's tough to understands what Ballard (the character) sees in this car crashes. The performances, except maybe for Elias Koteas' pitch perfect interpretation of Vaughan, are clinical and weirdly playful. James Sapder, Holly Hunter and the talented Deborah Kara Unger don't embody Ballard's character, they play pretend. They're weird for the sake of being weird.
I don't believe a single J.G Ballard adaptation lived up to their original material's greatness. Ben Weathley's High-Rise was especially disappointing in that regard, completely whiffing on the religious metaphor that made the novel so fucking terrifying. Ballard seems adaptation-friendly because he tells straighforward stories, but his worlds are so loaded with ideas that it becomes easy to not to go through the motions without understanding what they mean. David Cronenberg did a remarkable job with a novel that seems unadaptable and translates some of the angst and the power of Ballard's book. He does just enough and offers little enough closure in order to make you want to continue the experience and understand better what the fuck you've just seen.