With "Crash," Paul Haggis delivers a knockout punch that rivals the one he leveled with his Oscar-nominated "Million Dollar Baby" script.
Functioning as both director and co-writer, Haggis weaves a tale of disparate, disconnected Los Angeles residents whose paths cross over a 36-hour period. The encounters expose their prejudices and frailties, but Haggis judges none of them and offers no easy answers; rather, everyone is to blame equally, simply for being human and imperfect.
Think of it as a multicultural "Magnolia," only without the histrionics or visual trickery of Paul Thomas Anderson's 1999 film. The various stories play out in dreamlike fashion under hazy afternoon sunshine and shimmering Hollywood lights, so when something dramatic does occur, its impact is even more intense.
"In L.A., nobody touches you," Detective Graham (Don Cheadle, subtly powerful as always) says quietly on his way to investigate a car accident. "I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just to feel something."
Exploring the baggage and expectations that accompany ethnicity is a concept that could have been preachy or heavy-handed. But Haggis and co-writer Bobby Moresco have created such complex characters - each of whom has an arc, none of whom is what he or she initially seems - that they avoid such oversimplification.
Strong performances abound from an excellent, eclectic cast, including surprising work from Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Michael Pena and rapper Chris "Ludacris" Bridges. And the candid manner in which characters discuss race - and reveal their resentments and preconceptions - is searing but necessary to hear.
The district attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his beautiful wife (Bullock) have their Lincoln Navigator carjacked at gunpoint by two young black men (Bridges and Larenz Tate), who just got done discussing how tired they are of being perceived as potentially threatening based on the color of their skin.
Bullock's character, Jean, then goes on a tirade at her Brentwood home about how she doesn't trust the man changing the locks on her doors because he looks like a gang member, with his tattoos and baggy pants. (Jean will later come to understand that the source of her misery is within her own skin.)
But the misconceptions aren't limited to blacks, whites and Hispanics. We see Daniel the locksmith (Pena, who plays Shane's new vice partner, Army, on "The Shield") coming home to his wife and young daughter, whom he'll later have to protect from an angry Persian convenience store owner he'd argued with earlier in the day.
Dillon is so believable as a veteran cop who takes perverse pleasure in pulling over a wealthy black couple (Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton), he's hard to watch. His words also sting when he chastises his young, white partner (Ryan Phillippe, who has his own strong moments) for being so idealistic.
Howard and Newton, as a TV producer and his wife living in upscale Studio City, might share the most heartbreaking story line of all. They seem to be experiencing an identity crisis in which they defy stereotypes, yet they make themselves and each other feel guilty for not being sufficiently true to their heritage.
In a film in which everyone thinks they understand everyone else, these two characters don't truly understand themselves, and that sense of isolation and confusion threatens to destroy their marriage.
Haggis moves seamlessly between all these stories and has structured them in such a way that his characters reach a crisis point simultaneously, followed by melancholy clarity. But none of them achieve anything resembling an easy sense of peace.
Neither do we. But at least, the movie indicates, there's the possibility of enlightenment.
"Crash," a Lions Gate Films release, is rated R for language, sexual content and some violence. Running time: 107 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.