There are two very different stereotypes of what kind of film wins the Best Picture Oscar, and neither of them is actually true. The kind of people whose movie-watching habits never extends to anything that isn't a heavily-marketed wide-release blockbuster tends to suppose that Oscar-winning films are obscurantist art movie bullshit about sad people doing nothing but talking. The kind of people who watch obscurantist art movies for fun and then write about them on websites tend to think that Oscar-winning films are pandering, middlebrow tripe that drones on and on about important messages while rewarding its audience for being self-described good people.
I can't speak about the first stereotype, but the second, at least, is only mostly false. But every now and then, we get a Best Picture winner that is exactly what people like me don't want Best Pictures to be, and no film in the last quarter of a century more fully lives down to that standard than 2004's Crash, which was commercially released in 2005 and infamously won Best Picture for that year, beating Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck., Munich, and most infamously of all, Brokeback Mountain. It was roundly regarded at the time as a terrible outcome, and I do not know of any serious attempt to redeem the film's reputation; when Roger Ebert died in 2013, so too died the only major film critic willing to vocally declare their support for Crash as a work of cinema, social commentary, or much of anything else.
Just as it should be. Crash isn't the worst imaginable film, and it's neither the worst Best Picture nominee* nor even the worst winner† of the 2000s. But it's still pretty bad, and it's uniquely bad at the exact thing it cares most about: diagonising the ills of American racism. Or, I should say, that's the thing it says it cares most about. One could readily argue that it actually cares most about giving its presumed white liberal audience an opportunity to feel guilty about not doing better, but in a very controlled, safe way that silently but cozily excuses the audience. It is a film that declares that we are all racist in some way, so maybe none of us are; and anyway, if we're sufficiently un-racist to be able to acknowledge that we're all racist, we're at least less racist than those other racists. It is for this reason that Crash is even worse as a message picture than those Stanley Kramer productions in the '50s and '60s that it so resembles, movies willing to sacrifice every shred of dramatic integrity to stop cold and Tell Us All A Lesson; Kramer, at least, really wanted to force people to confront the messages he was artlessly peddling, while Crash is a kind of shallow expiation, the cinematic version of a Catholic who goes to confession every week and bemoans their sinfulness, but still fucks their acupuncturist and eats red meat every Friday.
More to the point, it's just so damn clumsy. Like a Kramer film, and like many a earnest, hacky message film down through the ages, Crash is first and foremost a harangue. Over the course of its 112 minutes - 115 minutes if you go for the director's cut as I did this time around, and I have no clue what the differences are - not one conversation between adults pivots on any subject other than race (there is one point where Michael Peña's character talks to his daughter and it's just a nice little moment). You have never met a human population as obsessed with a single topic as much as the Crash ensemble talks about race. Black people make fun of the way Chinese people talk, white people talk about how every black person is probably hiding guns, Persian immigrants grouse about the laziness and greed of Mexicans, and pretty much every direction that one ethnic subgroup in Los Angeles can be bigoted against a different group is depicted. This at least we can say of Paul Haggis & Bobby Moresco's Oscar-winning screenplay: it is exhaustive.
The actual story of Crash is largely besides the point: it's one of those hyperlink narratives that were all the rage in the 2000s, in which a giant ensemble of interrelated characters zip around L.A. over the course of a day and half; racial tensions are brought to the fore generally because of situations involving cars crashing into each other, either literally or figuratively. Really, if Haggis & Moresco had done nothing more suspect than deciding that this labored wordplay ought to be the title of their film, that would already be enough me to regard the film with grave doubts.
But of course there is almost nothing about the script in Crash that's any better, and much that's worse. With no fewer than 13 major characters to keep in balance, the script falls into a bad habit of simply arbitrarily checking in with its different subplots at intervals, with no particularly compelling overlaps or cross-cutting: this is most apparent in the story of Jean Cabot (Sandra Bullock), wife of D.A. Rick Cabot (Brendan Fraser), and how she's a brittle shit redeemed because near the end of the movie, she hugs her Latin American maid. The affinities between most of the stories are flimsy, but they're generally unified by a vague "cops and criminals" framework; Jean's scenes are particularly ill-incorporated into the greater whole.
Any old film can have messy structure, though. Where Crash becomes truly special is the ungainly way it explores its themes - though "themes" implies there's more than one. It's remarkably hapless: the dialogue is full of mouthy declarations of the characters' thoughts on race, the characters' racism, or in the case of Don Cheadle's Det. Graham Waters (Cheadle and Peña are the only actors who escape the film mostly intact, though I appreciate that Ludacris has the presence of mind to recognise that melodramatic camp is the only approach that might be interesting to watch. Or perhaps he's just not a very good actor), the characters' weary philosophy of life in this beastly, fallen world, where we all think more about our differences than our similarities. The plot keeps relying on absurd turns that would have felt unnecessarily manipulative on the Victorian stage, and somehow, they keep compounding, until the point that Jean tumbles down a flight of stairs in a dramatic slow-motion close-up of her feet. Of her feet! Setting aside the question of whether this is worthy emotional climax to a film that has already had one finger-rape, one miraculously not-dead child, and multiple guns waved around, it takes some peculiar brilliance to decide that this is the right way to stage this or any moment.
But that's the other special thing about Crash. It's bad enough that the script is such a chore, with its declamatory writing, its hectoring insistence on screaming themes at us, its profound mismanagement of tone, its shallow, one-note characters. Did it, on top of all of this, have to be so damn boring to look at? The film was Haggis's second as director, after a gap of 11 years, during which time he mostly worked as a TV writer. It was also cinematographer James Muro's second film in that specific capacity, in a career that was and is dominated much more by camera operator and Steadicam work (that being said, his previous film, the 2003 Western Open Range, is quite lovely). Maybe it's not much of a surprise, then, that Crash should be so indifferent to visual artistry, relying on a tediously limited range of shot scales - not only are there medium shots and medium close-ups, there are even some medium wide shots! - and painting Los Angeles in a drab palette of olive browns. And this premiered only a month after Collateral, making Haggis & Muro's failure to produce a remotely appealing film all the more galling.
The film is as banal as it is dull, not to mention that it's also insipid - Mark Isham's score is a striking offender in this last way, creating a vaguely "arty" backdrop that's not even good enough to be emotionally pushy, though I think it intends to be. It's very dumb and shallow about racism in America, and inordinately loud about its opinions, making both slightly pernicious and enormously obvious. Outside of the excellent cast doing their best in impossible situations, there's virtually nothing enjoyable or aesthetically admirable here, and while I concede that the impulse to condemn racism is inherently worthwhile, I can barely imagine a less effective form for that condemnation to take than this mealy-mouthed lecture.
†A Beautiful Mind.