Blu-ray Review: Crash (1996)

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: David Cronenberg | CAST: James Spader, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas, Deborah Kara Unger, Rosanna Arquette, Peter MacNeill
RELEASE DATE: 12/1/20 | PRICE: DVD $24.67, Blu-ray $28.94
BONUSES: Audio commentary from 1997 featuring Cronenberg; 1997 Cannes press conference video; Q&A from 1996 with Cronenberg and Ballard at the National Film Theatre in London; behind-the-scenes footage and press interviews from 1996
SPECS: NR | 100 mins | Drama | 1.66:1 | 5.1 surround

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

Viewing Crash at this particular time is like receiving a transmission from another world. The 21st century has seen adult sexuality — never mind the warped imagery of a visionary like David Cronenberg — disappear entirely from mainstream American film. Films that address sexual topics are still made in the indie world and overseas, but the nature of current pop culture is such that sex as a concept is yet another “problematic” concept that has been set aside by the mainstream so that action movies, children’s fare and teary-eyed melodramas can take centerstage.

Thus, an audaciously sexual film like Crash seems even more jarring now than it did when it was released in 1996. Though not funded by a Hollywood studio (the executive producers were British and Canadian), the film featured three very successful performers of the ’90s, and a one-time “horror director” who had been making more prestigious films (Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly) collaborating on an adaptation of a novel that its author, J.G. Ballard, proclaimed was “the first pornographic novel based on technology.” The film alternates intense sex scenes with disturbing car crashes but is directed at a slow, almost languorous pace that makes it clear we’re watching a “dream film.”

James Spader (TV’s The Blacklist) plays the lead, a film director named Ballard who gets into a car accident that changes his life. It leaves him physically damaged and introduces him to performance artist and car-crash fetishist Vaughan (Elias Koteas, Let Me In), who is the charismatic leader of a group of crash fetishists who have sex with each other and watch crash videos for fun (and stimulation). Ballard’s wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger, The Game) also becomes part of this circle of alienated — yet also somehow strangely fulfilled —–  people.

Cronenberg adapts J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel into a series of set pieces, each of which contains material would be deemed “problematic” in the present climate. Holly Hunter (The Big Sick) and Rosanna Arquette (Gorp) have scene-stealing roles as women who were disabled in car crashes but are fixated and turned on by the experience. Vaughan directs and stars in deadly performance pieces where celebrity car crashes are recreated — we see his James Dean performance and he is shown discussing his desire to recreate Jayne Mansfield’s crash.

Ballard and Vaughan are clearly “circling” each other sexually through having sex with the women they’ve both slept with (and do eventually have sex themselves). The film’s most creative sex sequence is a lengthy (for a narrative film with a pedigree like this one) scene of sex in a car wash.

James Spade and Deborah Kara Unger in Crash

But the single most important and “explanatory” scene is explicitly played like a dream/nightmare — Ballard, Catherine, and Vaughan come across a “fresh” car crash scene with the victims still in or near their cars, and move among the participants (alive and dead) observing and taking pictures. It’s a slow-moving, fog-shrouded interlude that determines whether viewers are responding to what Cronenberg is doing. For some, it’s a scene that is too slow or utterly “unnecessary” to the plot. To the interested viewer it’s a moment where Cronenberg’s entire approach is laid bare and the theme of (Vaughan’s phrase, per Ballard and Cronenberg) “the reshaping of the human body by modern technology” comes to the forefront.

Throughout, the key factor that either alienates the viewer or clinches it for them is Cronenberg’s sincerity. An auteur first and foremost, he has never taken an ironic stance about the messages in his “biological horror” films. (Humor, yes; irony, no — Videodrome illustrates this perfectly.) Here he combines his own preoccupations with Ballard’s prescient discussion about technology altering biology — with the addition of an eye toward the photos of Helmut Newton. (Arquette’s body-brace costume, designed by Cronenberg’s sister Denise, is clearly a nod to Newton.)

The visual supplements found here were shot around the time the film was released, while Cronenberg’s commentary track was recorded for the 1997 LaserDisc release of the film. In it he supplies behind-the-scenes info about the location shoots and wound/scar make-up, as well as crash and sex scenes, with reflections about both.

As for the violent moments in the film, he declares that the violence is “conceptual” — that the crash sequences do “violence to people’s concepts of what is proper and acceptable.” He also discusses the film’s visual style, noting that he paralleled the coldness of J.G. Ballard’s prose with lighting and other effects.

The technical info is fascinating, but not as much of a “grabber” as Cronenberg discussing one of the more memorable sex scenes in the film, in which Spader and Arquette’s characters have sex in a car, requiring them to maneuver around her leg braces. He clarifies that Spader’s Ballard is penetrating not his partner’s genitals in this scene but her leg wound (which resembles a vagina), a fact he claims escaped some viewers.

He discusses Arquette’s character in depth, noting that the British press criticized him for showing a handicapped person having sex, which provoked a backlash from disabled people who enjoyed the forthright sexuality of the character. Cronenberg underscores his eventual surprise that “I had accidentally made a politically correct film.”

A videotape of the press conference for the film at Cannes includes Cronenberg discussing how the characters in the picture have had “to create strange and bizarre ways to connect.” The cast all seem happy to have worked on the film, but none of them are as excited about it as J.G. Ballard, who says he was “tremendously impressed” by it. He also goes for the tongue-in-cheek, hyperbolic win by saying “This film is the best possible advertisement for wearing a seat belt, driving slowly — and if you’re going to have sex in a car, have it in the back seat!”

A lengthy Q&A session with Cronenberg and J.G. Ballard at London’s National Film Theatre. Ballard notes that he feels that Cronenberg’s film goes further than he did in the novel by focusing on the “love story” between Ballard and Catherine. He also wryly laments that Cronenberg left out an incident in the book involving Elizabeth Taylor. (Cronenberg wisely decided to emphasize dead celebrities than dote on a then-living one.)

Cronenberg offers a lot of fascinating reflections, with one of the most interesting being how he decided to not use slow-motion in the film because the public’s idea of car crashes comes from films that overuse that device. To the charge that he made the auto accidents “unrealistic,” he responds that he actually made them more realistic.

He also discusses at much length the notion of “man and machine” and shocked reactions from critics and distributors (one of whom asked him to add a voiceover narration, to better explain the plot). His best rumination is a twisted auteur’s best promise: “I pray that I will never make a film with morally redeeming features.”

Buy or Rent Crash (1996)

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”