Crash (1996)

Not to be confused with 2004’s Crash, David Cronenberg’s Crash is a film that appears on the surface to be more grounded and dramatic than his previous works, but ends up being just as fantastic and out there as the likes of The Fly and Scanners. It’s also a film that’s much more lurid and pushes the bounds of decency.

An accidental car crash launches two lives into a strange subculture of violence, sex and automobiles. James Ballard (James Spader) drove the car that crashed into the vehicle of Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) and the two reunite later to witness the recreation of a famous car crash. But what starts off as morbid fascination quickly turns into obsession as James and Helen begin hanging around Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a man driven by the violence of car crashes.

Crash is most notable for its sexual deviance. The film is at the very bounds of being pornographic, depicting a good number of sexual acts in detail. But even more than that, it’s the context in which the sex exists, the fact that a good number of them have a deep connection to other ideas, which makes these scenes controversial and complex.

One of the most basic and least offensive associations is the idea of industrialized items as sexually arousing objects. It’s mostly in conjunction with women, cars representing phallic power. But even more than that, the car itself represents the idea of the rise of consumerism, tying sexual desires with consumerist desires. That now the two are almost intertwined.

The film does make a point to show many of these characters having sex with a plethora of other characters, often even within their own subgroup. Sex has become another commodity in modern society. Having sex almost becomes synonymous with driving a car, a fulfillment of that consumerist drive inside humanity.

But, as biological creatures, humanity has a more basic urge for sex. The film ties this urge to the more disturbing idea of violence, specifically the infliction of physical pain. This manifests itself in the idea of pain being another form of arousal, another kind of penetration that gives a rush. This idea of pain being just as enjoyable as sex is possibly the most disturbing idea in the film.

And by also weaving sex in with violence, the film brings up this frightening idea that while humans also have the biological urge for sex, they also have an equal urge for violence. Some of this can be mitigated by media portrays, such as Helen’s fascination with watching car crashes on tape, but for others, like Vaughan, the actual participating of staged violence becomes a necessity for existence.

While Cronenberg makes a thought-provoking film with a number of interesting ideas, it is hard to get past the gut reaction that he’s also trying to be controversial for controversy’s sake. The nature and style of the objectionable content actively distracts from the themes and doesn’t add much beyond a base, prurient value. Something like Videodrome explores similarly objectionable and revolting content but without ever feeling like it’s lingering or indulging in the very acts it is trying to condemn.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing