Most reviewers (even those who admire it) have recoiled from Crash, and that’s understandable. Wall-to-wall with frigid sex, this is not the sort of movie you’d take home to meet your mom. Nor is it a dirty, guilty pleasure, unless you share the characters’ erotic fixation on collisions, scars, and fractures. Even open-minded viewers prepared to like David Cronenberg’s experiment may lose patience with its plot, or lack thereof. Cronenberg, best known for The Fly and Dead Ringers, has an arctic and antiseptic approach to his art; he likes to dissect and study the human body and psyche. Crash unites the Canadian director’s recurring themes of mutating flesh and delusional mind, with a side order of techno-fetishism drawn from J.G. Ballard’s obsessive and difficult 1973 novel.
Ballard’s story has a pornographic simplicity with unexpected philosophical complexity. The protagonist, called James Ballard (James Spader), engages in jaded sex games with his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), who, in the first scene, rubs her breast against the cold steel of an airplane during a clinch with her flight instructor. Ballard has his own flings, and the couple swap sex stories in what passes for intimacy.
These, we understand, are numb automatons who push themselves into transgression so as to feel something — the fleeting illusion of sensation. Cronenberg’s camera stares at the sex dispassionately, as if through a microscope; this is not destined to be a Friday-night video for lonely guys. The film’s first real sex scene is a collision: Ballard, distracted while driving one rainy night, rams head-on into another car. The other driver is killed; his wife and passenger, Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), locks eyes with Ballard through the smashed windshields. Before long, they’re having anguished sex in a car in an airport garage. Helen introduces Ballard to the scarred Vaughan (Elias Koteas), who re-enacts celebrity car crashes and insists on the connection between collision and copulation. Vaughan draws Ballard into a philosophy in which crash-induced wounds become a new form of sexual flesh.
J.G. Ballard’s idea was to take the eroticized subtext of cars (think of the bikinied blondes posing atop Ferraris, the high-school fumblings in back seats) to a Swiftian extreme. Cronenberg latches onto the visceral aspect while maintaining a cerebral distance. His view, I believe, is that Vaughan and the others with physical and psychic scars have built an elaborate belief system as a defense mechanism. Where we see mangled flesh and splintered bones, they see beauty. They must.
Why make a movie about this? How could anyone enjoy it? Well, I did. I take pleasure in visiting an inner landscape totally alien to me. Crash is a mutant work of art — a bracing splash of ice water. Numbingly repetitive on first viewing, it demands a second look to uncover the subtle exchanges in those strenuously unsexy sex scenes. It’s a minor masterpiece of a very specialized and ornery kind: It lures us with sex and car crashes, then delivers a muted essay on dehumanization. Or, as Cronenberg once said: “I love to disappoint people.”