Crash takes place in L.A., a city with no center but a network of highways and suburbs. The story unravels over a 2-day chain-reaction period during which the lives of strangers intersect. A young black man, spouting ideology of black oppression, steals an SUV from a rich white couple. Two policeman hear the APB, and pull over the wrong SUV simply because a black man is driving. One cop harasses the driver and his wife, while his young partner watches horrified. The black couple endures in order to avoid more radical violence. Elsewhere, a Persian man is buying a gun; his adult daughter acts as translator to the suspicious shop-owner. Each scenario ripples out in the lives of the people involved. The SUV thieves get involved in a hit-and-run. The white couple gets home and change their locks. The wife then accuses the Hispanic locksmith of stealing a copy of her keys. The husband, incumbent DA, tries to spin the event to manipulate the black vote in the upcoming election. The black couple escapes more extreme violence, but the wife rages at her husband's passivity. The next day she gets into a car accident. Meanwhile her husband snaps towards violence when the same young black thieves from the previous night try to steal his SUV. The white cop who diffuses the situation is the partner of the racist cop, trying to atone, and still becoming the victim of his own prejudices. The Persian man, who called the same Hispanic locksmith the night before, thinks he was cheated by him and so waits with his gun at the locksmith's home.
The movie reveals the everyday unexamined prejudices we all carry around like concealed weapons that distort our world and make us all liars and cheats. On the surface, Crash is about racism; every character is racist about another racial group. But if you scrape the surface a bit, it turns racism on its head, from a problem "out there" to one inside us all. There are no good characters in this story, but every person is a mixed bag. Most of the characters are in denial about their ambiguity, and live disconnected from truth. Not the truth we tell ourselves, but the truth of reality, that encompasses both good and bad.
Truth, from the point of view of the Enneagram starts with the compulsion of aggression and blame. People prone to this compulsion are keenly aware of having been mistreated, and of the disconnection between spirit and matter.If they move towards redemption, they begin to see the roots of duality within themselves. This can lead them to recognize the Holy Truth of the interconnectedness of all reality. This Holy Truth allows them to put aside their aggression, to trust in the multidimensionality of reality and start to relate with vulnerability.
The racist cop Jack Ryan, played by Matt Dillon, is perhaps the most ambiguous character. Even though his partner urges him not to pull over what is clearly the wrong vehicle, Jack forges ahead. His bitterness seethes behind his role and begins to ooze out as he feels up the driver's wife. The situation could turn violent at any moment as everyone catches their breath. Afterwards, Jack's partner Tommy Hanson (Ryan Phillippe) can barely hide his disgust after his shift requests a change of partner. Just as the wife, Christine (Thandie Newton) can't hide her disgust at her husband Cam's (Terrence Howard) cowtowing, and violently berates him. But Jack goes home to an ailing father and tenderly watches over him as he struggles with a mysterious kidney ailment. The extent of Jack's bitterness is revealed when he visits the HMO the next day and pleads with them to cover the expenses of his father seeing a specialist. "It's you people that forced my father to lose everything, and yet he never blamed you," he tells the black administrator. Jack's dad was a victim of equal opportunity, who lost his egalitarian janitorial business because he wasn't an African American. We begin to understand that every time Jack sees a black man, he sees the source of his father's demise. His sense of injustice and blame is palpable. And he is not a likeable guy.
But everything is turned upside down when he arrives at the crash scene. The driver is pinned in the overturned car and gasoline is leaking. A fire has started in the other vehicle. Jack's training kicks in and he rushes into the car only to be confronted with Christine, the very woman he molested the night before. She becomes hysterical, insisting another cop handle the scene. But pinned by her seat belt, she is in no position to argue and time is running out. Jack realizes that if he is to save her, he must gain her trust. We realize that perhaps he regrets the previous night.
Again violence threatens to destroy, but it also seems to break past defences, offering an alchemical solution, a transformation. Somehow, Jack and Christine recognize something in each other. She realizes there is no time, that she must let him touch her. He somehow gains her trust, breaking through her panic. Risking his own life, the car already engulfed in flames, he pulls her to safety, surprising both of them. As she is led away by paramedics, they stare at each other, at the mystery of transcendence that just came over both of them. One had a chance to atone, the other a chance to be grateful. There is a beautiful sense of mercy in this scene that neither got what they deserved, but both received justice that had the potential to transform them into more loving people.
It is only when both the dark and light of ourselves are allowed in that this kind of transformation is possible. If we only identify with our ideals or our hatreds we will lack the tension of opposites that alone allows us to be open to the truth, or the Holy Truth. The truth is that we are all connected to each other. The truth is that real goodness doesn't reside in our identities but is a gift when we acknowledge our ambiguity and have compassion when we see it in others.
If this tension of opposites isn't maintained, the truth is lost. Jack's partner Tommy, with the self-righteousness of the young and idealistic, wants to stand against Rodney King racism; he wants to be a better man. Jack warns him, "You think you know who you are, but the job changes you." Tommy doesn't recognize the darker side of his own idealism. He shows remarkable courage in walking into a standoff with Cam and several other cops. He convinces the other cops to let Cam go with a warning. Later he offers a ride to a young black man Peter (Larenz Tate). Still high on his heroism, Tommy doesn't recognize himself in his ride, symbolized by both of them carrying St. Christopher icons. He doesn't recognize his own racism, when Peter laughs about country music and fishes in his pocket to show Tommy his own St. Christopher icon. Tommy thinks Peter is laughing at him; his defensiveness and his training interpret Peter's movement as dangerous. In a split second Tommy understands how thin the line between hero and villain is. For both Jack and Tommy, true justice is not about legality or about being the hero but about setting things right, moving from isolation through blame towards vulnerability. In Jack's case the vulnerability brings a chance for redemption. For Tommy it's a chance for consciousness.
Aggression and violence, a desire to be powerful, are responses to fear. But it is only vulnerability that is truly powerful because it has the chance to transform us. When the locksmith Daniel (Michael Pena) tells his daughter Lara about the fairy cloak that protects from bullets, his love for her makes him truly vulnerable, because she comes into risk from believing his words. Seeing the gun aimed at her father, she runs to protect him with her own invincibility, which is really her vulnerability. Bitter, hateful Farhad, the Persian shopkeeper (Shaun Toub) crashes into the impossibility that he shot a child, yet she is not dead. Did Farhad's daughter know the bullets were blank when she bought them? That doesn't really matter, because Farhad has confronted the fact that he would have killed a child, and yet an "angel" intervened. Moving from isolation and hatred, Farhad begins to open his heart.
Each character in this story is confronted with the dark and light, and all must struggle with Holy Truth, with seeing what is truly there, slowing down and letting go. Allowing the movement of truth from isolation, through blame to vulnerability. It doesn't have to work this way. These inbreakings aren't foregone conclusions of transformed characters, as the last scene depicts when the cycle of random "crashes" again. It's just that each person gets a second chance and a glimpse at how reality might work if they allowed the truth to set them free.