in Criterion Month, Review

Crash (1996)

I didn’t mean to post this so late but I had a splitting headache for most of the day. Yeah… that’s what happened. I mean, it’s not like I have some fetish where I sneak out late at night and get off watching cars crash. Or have sex without a seat belt in a speeding convertible. No uh, nothing like that.. um, anyways I watched David Cronenberg’s 1996 erotic thriller Crash.

I was scared to watch Crash. It’s NC-17. It’s sexual. It’s Cronenberg. I didn’t want anyone to walk into the room and think I was watching porn. A film about people who are sexually aroused by car crashes doesn’t scream accessibility. But to my surprise, this is my favorite film I’ve watched for Criterion Month this year. Crash is exciting in the way where you want to look away but you can’t. It’s like watching a car crash. You can’t look away. Well actually, it’s more like watching a car crash. Then watching James Spader have sex because of the car crash. Crash is a movie unlike anything I’ve never seen and for that it has to be admired.

Based on British author J.G. Ballard’s controversial 1973 novel of the same name, James Spader plays a promiscuous film producer named James Ballard (named after the author) who after a long day gets in a serious head-on car crash. The other driver is killed but the passenger, Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), survives and in one fleeting moment, flashes her breast to James before he passes out.

James wakes up in a hospital and meets a doctor named Vaughan (Elias Koteas) who takes a special interest in James’ braced leg. I think you know what I mean when I say “special interest”. James meets up with Helen who instead of despising him, starts an affair with him. Yeah, that car crash really did it for them. You know what I’m saying. Despite the NC-17 rating the sex isn’t that explicit. It’s actually shot quite artfully. Even when it’s in the backseat of a car.

I should also mention that James has a loving wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), who is comfortable with having an open relationship with her husband. In fact, Catherine gets off on hearing about James’ new fetish and joins him on his escapades. James, Catherine, and Helen soon become followers of Vaughan (the doctor from earlier) who leads a group fetishists that participate in various erotic car-based activities. In particular, live reenactments of famous car crashes like James Dean’s crash, featuring Vaughan and his partner in crime, Seagrave (Peter MacNeil).

What’s great about this movie is how focused it is on what makes it interesting. This isn’t a film weighed down by subplots or conventional movie pacing. Crash is about being a car fetishist. That’s it. It’s about showing what draws these people in, the lifestyle, and the risks of it (which I think is obvious). These people are willing to die in a fiery crash just to satisfy their sexual needs. It’s so simple for a a subject matter that is anything but.

There’s a coldness to how Crash looks and sounds. The setting is the dark streets of what could be any American city (It was shot in Toronto) and the chilling score from frequent Cronenberg collaborate Howard Shore is made up of dissonant echoing guitars. The performances also have an almost robotic quality to them. The always intense James Spader plays silent pervert like it’s no one’s business. Even better is the always underrated Elias Koteas as the de facto leader of these fetishists. His obsession with twisted metal, wounds, and death, makes him such a compelling character. It’s a performance that deserves more attention in a movie that deserves more attention.

There’s a reason Crash was buried by theaters upon its release. The racy subject matter had theater owners across America banning the film from screening at their establishments. AMC went as far as hiring security guards to make sure no one underage got into the movie. The film was divisive. To that I say, “What a bunch of squares.” The film isn’t pornographic to be pornographic. Crash gives us an unfiltered lens into sexual subcultures. It takes no pro or anti stance. It shows the effect fetishes have on us. It shows what we will do fulfill our needs. Even when our world comes crashing down. Eh? EH?!?… See what I did. Maybe it is too late. Time to go to the ‘ol car sex party–I mean, bed.

Whoever made this, bless you.

  1. I like how many of your Criterion Month reviews start with you being so worried people are going to walk in on you watching the movie and end with you passionately defending it.

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