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movie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Crash

Starring: James Spader, Holly Hunter
Director: David Cronenberg
Rated: NC-17
RunTime: 98 Minutes
Release Date: March 1997
Genres: Drama, Cult

*Also starring: Peter MacNeill, Elias Koteas, Deborah Unger, Rosanna Arquette, Peter MacNeil

Review by MrBrown
3½ stars out of 4

In recent years, the buzzwords "bold" and "controversial" have come less to describe something truly daring than to serve as marketing labels for unimaginative sleaze (Showgirls or Striptease, anyone?). On the other hand, David Cronenberg's Crash, which is finally opening stateside after causing an uproar across the globe (Great Britain just recently lifted a ban on the film), is a film that truly earns the "bold" description--it's a brave, gutsy bit of filmmaking that is never less than fascinating.

This adaptation of J.G. Ballard's controversial novel about sex and car crashes focuses on just that--sex and car crashes. James and Catherine Ballard (James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger) are marrieds who can only seem to become aroused for each other through consensual extramarital dalliances. After James has a head-on car collision with one Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), killing her husband, he finds a new, exciting fetish. James and eventually Catherine are drawn into an underground cult of car-crash fetishists led by Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a heavily scarred performance artist who gets off on recreating famous celebrity car wrecks.

Not a lot of plot (there's just about as much dialogue as well), but there is plenty of explicit sex and carnage, and I can see why so many people absolutely abhor the film. The film's unflinching scenes of sex involving scarred flesh, wounds, scabs, blood, and pain are hard to take and often shocking--perhaps beyond most people's tolerance levels. At the showing I attended, about 1/4 of the audience was no longer there by the time the closing credits began to crawl. In fact, one could hear the auditorium doors swing open during or after each shock scene (read: sex scene), which was just about every five minutes.

While I was often shocked, I was more fascinated then repelled. The thin plot and wall-to-wall sex may sound like the characteristics of a porno movie, but the execution is not pornographic at all. The sex scenes are raw and unglossy, matter-of-fact and totally devoid of romanticism and eroticism or any feeling at all. To say that these people "have sex" may be too pretty a term; they fuck, plain and simple. And if using that term just makes it sound like the film has no point, there is one. James and Catherine are not just unmoved by each other, but by life in general; their inability to feel anything makes them, in particular James, seek out a way to feel. The film vividly shows how James attempts to feel something through sexual encounters that grow progressively more dangerous, leading up to the final dialogue exchange, which, the way I read it, implies the ultimate point of the film--a haunting conclusion and realization that is even more unsettling in how it makes logical sense.

The stark, cold elegance in how it all comes together is a tribute to Cronenberg, whose talent to get under filmgoers' skin is further proven by the wildly polarized, love-it-or-hate-it reaction to the film. Despite the preposterousness of the central idea (I doubt anyone has a car crash fetish), there are no laughable moments, except perhaps one where the group is driven to heights of ecstasy while watching crash test dummy footage. Cronenberg elicits appopriately stoic and morose turns by Spader, Unger, and Hunter, but the standouts of the cast are the creepy Koteas and Rosanna Arquette, who plays a crippled crash victim whose leg-braces-and-leather get-up suggests a twisted (literally) dominatrix. Cronenberg does fall somewhat short in setting up the characters; we never get a concrete sense of how or why Helen, James, or Catherine became so disaffected by the world. A better understanding of the people may have made the film resonate even stronger.

But, as it stands, Crash resonates pretty strongly. With this, what you see is not what you get. All of the sex makes it look like porn, but no porn film has such strong thematic subtext. Then again, not that many films, period, provide so much fascinating food for thought.

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