Based on J. G. Ballard’s 1973 novel of the same name, David Cronenberg’s Crash is a complicated and polarizing thriller. The 1996 picture is bizarre and remote, with a chilling effect that nevertheless draws attention to the director’s eternal sadness.
As a picture on the heels of M. Butterfly, Crash takes another look at the romantic relationship and persists along with Naked Lunch and The Fly as interpretations of human yearning. The turns of technology are ever-present, with the landscape of Crash a ragged and damaged distortion of love.
James Spader is James Ballard, a commercial producer. He’s married to Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger). They sleep with other people and can only generate heat if there are risks involved. One night, James get in a car accident and the male passenger of the other car is killed. The female passenger, Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), becomes part of his life.
James and Helen have a sexual relationship that pivots on the crash. Helen introduces him to Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a man who recreates famous car crashes. James and Helen become involved in the subculture and experience arousal connected to the chomping of metal. Eventually, Catherine enters the scene.
Crash is a skeletal, dead movie. This is by design, as Cronenberg employs a submissive style of acting and meshes it with Howard Shore’s gangling score. Peter Suschitzky’s lens glides over the curves and mechanisms, lingering here and there with affection for the screws and steel.
In some sense, Cronenberg’s concern lies with the “reshaping of the human body by modern technology.” His characters wilt and strain. Some are held together by braces and scars, like the beautiful Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette). Her body provides James with an substitute aperture.
Just as M. Butterfly dealt with characters hermetically sealed from “normal,” Crash introduces a community ensconced in self-delusion. The relationship between the Ballards has been soured by time, affluence and privilege, but their latest fetishistic survey has openings for something that could even resemble love.
Getting to that eventual moment of affection requires some doing, with disparities of sex rambling throughout the fractured steel. The “ugly spirit” of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch is all-pervading, as are the cavities and jaws of repugnant shadows.
While Peter Weller’s William Lee got lost in the smoke of bug powder and saw his typewriter come to life, Spader’s Ballard wants to nail it all down. Literally. Everything in his world of chaos is intensified. He imagines more cars on the road after the crash. The jaded rutting of his past is transformed by bendy, hastening whims.
Cronenberg has always stated that his interest in mechanical things amounts to metaphysical curiosity. With Crash, he delves into this concern with raw-boned resolve. The result is a warped picture that is hard to hold on to. It’s provisional in a sense, but it still leaves scars like scorching rubber.
Technically, Crash is gorgeous. The cinematography and framing is elegant, taciturn. The music is the same, at least until the closing scene breaks Shore free from tiresome patterns and invokes a spiritual sweep. The acting is distant. And the crashes are abrupt, quaking and sexual. It’s like plunging into the hole of the psychosexual and finding the agitating gears below.