Combustible Celluloid
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With: James Spader, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas, Deborah Kara Unger, Rosanna Arquette
Written by: David Cronenberg, based on a novella by J.G. Ballard
Directed by: David Cronenberg
MPAA Rating: NC-17 for numerous explicit sex scenes
Running Time: 100
Date: 05/16/1996

Crash (1996)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Steel Kisses

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

David Cronenberg's latest film has offended many, was blown off by many and was praised by a brave few. The Cannes Film Festival gave it a special award for "Originality, Daring and Audacity", after the audience booed it. But it's a vintage Cronenberg film, no different than his other explorations into mortality and the crude stuff that makes up human beings.

Cronenberg is a one-of-a-kind filmmaker. No one else has the courage to stare mortality directly in the face and not blink. His films are lumped in the horror genre, but Cronenberg is not scared. He is like a scientist, giving us the cold facts. If one looks at his past works, and the way his career has progressed, sooner or later, he would have come around to filming J.G. Ballard's novel Crash. It's a natural.

Most of Cronenberg's past films have been well reviewed, and mostly in hindsight. Films like Videodrome, The Fly, and Dead Ringers; are too disturbing to be excited about at the time. It's only later, sometimes years later, that we can go back and look at their construction, and see what the artist has done. It took me 8 years to go back and watch Dead Ringers again to see what a great, perfectly detailed, wonderfully executed film it is. I predict that Crash, too, will have a second life in several years.

Crash is the story of James Ballard (James Spader), a filmmaker who has a car crash with Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) and ends up with a weird cult of people who get off sexually by watching and experiencing car crashes. There is one telling scene in which a group of people are watching a video of crash scenes, and the VCR malfunctions and accidentally freeze-frames the tape just before a car hits another car. The characters become rigid, tense, and frustrated. You can see from the actors' faces that the acceleration of the car is like sexual intercourse, and the crash is the orgasm. The crash is the payoff.

Ballard and his wife, Catherine, played by the beautiful, icy blonde Deborah Kara Unger, were already into weird sex before Ballard's crash, but now they've become interested in Elias Koteas, the most enthusiastic member of the crash cult, and Rosanna Arquette, a badly scarred, horribly mutilated crash survivor, who wears sexy fishnet stockings under her leg braces. Elias drives a big, sexy convertible, a monster of a car. James and Catherine lay in bed, make love and talk about Elias. Later, James and his wife try to create their own crash so that she can join the cult and their sex can be elevated to the next level.

Crash is being advertised as a sexy thriller, in the Basic Instinct vein, which it's not. (On the Criterion disc commentary, Cronenberg describes how Crash would have turned out if Hollywood had made it their way--more like a Basic Instinct.) It's more along the lines of a nightmarish Bergman world, or Fellini at his darkest. You should be prepared before you watch a movie like Crash. You have to be adventurous, and ready to accept that movies can still break new ground. Crash is a great film.

Thankfully, the edited "R" rated version of this film is nowhere to be found on the Criterion Collection's long-awaited, essential 2020 Blu-ray release. It includes a commentary track by Cronenberg recorded back in 1997 for Criterion's laserdisc release! It also comes with a filmed lecture with Cronenberg and Ballard, a 38-minute press conference from Cannes, a 9-minute EPK, and trailers. The illustrated liner notes booklet includes an essay by film critic Jessica Kiang.

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