This film opens with three straight sex scenes. This film is also unbelievably morbid, a paean to people who are so numb and prosaic, you'd have to get some jump-cables to kick-start their existence. So, there you have it, this film is about sex and death, and the increasingly blurred, distorted, fuzzy line that separates the two. If this concept sounds odd, that's the point. These characters are messed-up, their lives are reduced to the most basic human desires: reproduction and survival. And the line gets blurrier, fuzzier, more distorted with each painfully nonchalant glance from the stillborn characters, every masturbatory but damning slow crawl tracking shot through scenes of literal and non-literal carnage, and every time a character utters such muffled a sentiment as "The car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event"; this gem spoken by speaking-wreck Elias Koteas.
This film features quite a number of sex scenes, and a good few car crashes. It is rarely exciting, never thrilling. This again, is pretty odd. This film should really die a slow and painful death as entertainment for whichever important organ you can think of, but it in fact manages to be timely, compulsive, illuminating and tragic viewing. This shouldn't happen, this is desperately uncompromising material delivered with quiet destruction, but then again, that was the point from the word go. The crash, the pile-up of ideas, feelings, thoughts and events which eventually gain some semblance of order and point. Flesh and metal. Body and mind. Happiness and pleasure. At once together and torn apart. What the fuck?
Well, that's really the genesis of a Cronenberg movie, it's blank but deep canvass if you will: Technology, human progression and unnatural evolution should be bringing us closer together, but instead they're ripping us apart. The estranged Mantle Twins in Dead Ringers, victims of their own absurdist brilliance; The Brood's evil mutant children, feeding off the raw hate of their maternal (but not biological or metaphysical) creator; the blurring of reality, understanding and compassion that the virtual reality of eXistenZ blusters towards; Videodrome I'll let you work out yourselves. However, this is only a canvass, the themes encased within float in and out of eye and earshot, always staying pertinent, but never overbearing or suffocating the material. What really makes Cronenberg's films effective though are his choice of actors, and how he chooses to capture their descent from ambivalent ambition to crushed and demoralised failure. Who's face he decides to distort and scrawl his themes on. This is what sets Cronenberg apart from his horror peers, his treatment of actors as people with characters, personalities, things to live for, faces and sensibilities that make pain and the vain grasping for understanding that mile more emphatic. Cronenberg cares deeply about the treatment of his characters, and in Crash they exist almost in dual roles: As intellectual, intelligent, functional individuals, and as animalistic, physical, passionless objects. The former discuss things, speculate about the future, go to work, drive their cars. The latter are there to be smashed, fucked, and damaged, as ourselves, the spectator, and the former watch in wincing yet compulsive anticipation. This in turn creates a fascinating symbiosis of the literal and the metaphorical, the real and the fantastical, the mind and the body. And if that sentence means little to you, this film is a visceral slow-motion punch that will cause the pure sensations in the previous sentence to reverb around your body, feelings that make words momentarily inadequate.
There's a remarkable sense of unity and trust about the cast assembled here, a pact not just between the director and his actors, but the characters and the world which is an extension of their alien focus. Yet oddly this is a film where the lack of chemistry between the ensemble is high praise. Each character is an individual, only the carnal connects. Elias Koteas is an almost mechanical figure here, thinking like a machine, and contorting his impressive frame with a stamp of authority. James Spader is permanently lost, washed away, jaded, jaundiced, as he lingers with the similarly disconnected and cold Deborah Kara Unger. Holly Hunter possess a guilty eagerness, inside her the eerie sensation of normality crashing into the realms of extreme dysfunction, complete with a permanent haunted look. All the cast are superb, and the muted blues and dulled, sporadic brightness of the film gives the feeling of a perpetual dusk or dawn, some stasis between the conventionality of daylight. Everything seems slightly incomplete, unfinished, vague, and that once again is the purpose, to question the minimalism in direct contrast of a film with so many excessive ideas.
Surprisingly stylish (the film has a number of masterful set pieces. Really), with a nocturnal wit and a disturbing attention to detail, Crash's biggest folly doesn't come from those who deem it obscene, bleak, inhuman or depressing (although these are compliments surely?), but from those who consider it boring. This I find peculiar. Much like the ostensible gross distaste of shock cinema like Irreversible or Funny Games, the intentional clinical monotony of Crash (car crashes are not shot like car crashes, sex scenes have nothing approaching a 'money shot', there are no lines written for the benefit of a snazzier trailer) is merely a veneer one has to look past to appreciate Crash. Cronenberg's film may seem boring at times because his characters are bored, their tedium is killing them off. It's what creeps just beyond this boredom that is terrifying. When watching a film involving a decently recognisable actress gets a fucked in a messy fleshwound, a man killing himself dressed as Jayne Mansfield, and Hell, when a film opens with three sexual encounters in a row, and you find the results boring, you have to ask yourself why. 'Why' with a remarkably strange look on your face. As you may have gathered, this is the kind of film which prefers to raise questions rather than answer them, but thinking about it for a moment, the answers aren't supposed to be in the film. Like Romero with Dawn of the Dead or Kieslowski's A Short Film About Killing, Crash asks the questions so you can see the answers all around you, in your city, through the windscreen of your car. This is frightening, but also enlightening, fascinating and frequently brilliant.