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Crash (The Criterion Collection)
Based on author J.G. Ballard's controversial novel of the same name, David Cronenberg's equally controversial film Crash, from 1996, opens with a beautiful blonde woman named Catherine Ballard (Deborah Kara Unger) in the midst of a lovemaking session with an unnamed man in an airplane hangar. Meanwhile, her husband James (James Spader), a filmmaker, is having sex with one of his camera operators behind a locked door on his set. Later that night, at home, she tells him of her exploits and her tells her of his. She wasn't able to climax, a recurring problem it would seem, and he wasn't able to finish as they were interrupted.
A short time later, while driving home one night, James gets into a car accident. The driver of the other vehicle is killed, but his wife, Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), survives. She and James are taken to a nearby hospital typically reserved for air crash victims and it is, as such, pretty much empty. As they recuperate, James meets a man named Vaughn (Elias Koteas) who is somehow in possession of some rather intriguing crash photos. From here, Helen and James begin having an affair that brings him, and ultimately Catherine, into the strange world of car crash fetishists and celebrity car crash reenactments. This finally results in Vaughn exerting his sexual dominance over the young couple as well as Helen and his own girlfriend, Gabriella (Rosanna Arquette), the later disabled presumably due to she and Vaughn exploiting their fetish a little too often.
Presented here in its uncut form, Crash is pretty strong stuff. It's frank and graphic depiction of sex contrasts in strangely fascinating ways with the car crash sequences, culminating in a scene towards the end of the film where Vaughn, James and Catharine come across and explore the wreckage of a crash that they pass along the highway. Loaded with unusual metaphors and frequently focusing on the wounds and scars exhibited on the bodies of its cast (easily fitting into Cronenberg's often discussed body horror motif), the film can be unsettling and uncomfortable viewing, but it's presented with such cold and clinical style and with such an obvious sense of twisted, dark humor that there's still plenty of odd entertainment value to be taken from it.
The performances are strong across the board. James Spader, a big star at the time, is pretty fearless hear, as are the rest of the cast. Spader in particular, however, is the one who does most of the exploring in Vaughn's strange world, and that lends itself to taking some chances with his performance that you probably won't see coming (we won't spoil anything here). He's cool, calm and collected through most of the film, traits that the actor always handles well in his roles, and he does a fine job here. Likewise, Deborah Kara Unger is great in the picture as well. She and Spader have an unusual chemistry in the film, seeming only to connect when they're in bed together (though the film doesn't give us much else in terms of their relationship to dig into) but it's effective nonetheless. Holly Hunter is also very good here, and Rosanna Arquette turns in a very memorable performance here as crash-obsessed nymphomaniac Gabriella. However, it's often Elias Koteas who delivers the most memorable work in front of the camera. Often times resembling a young Robert DeNiro, his Vaughn is a strangely powerful character, a man with the ability to, over time, coerce those showing understandably trepidation to join up with his small but dedicated group of enthusiasts, to give in and accept their more base desires. There's certainly an element of manipulative ability to the character of Vaugh, but Koteas plays this side with an appropriately subtlety that makes it less obvious, therefore keeping an element of mystery to the events that unfold.
Featuring strong production values and shot entirely on location in and around Cronenberg's native Toronto, Crash benefits from some excellent cinematography courtesy of Peter Suschitzky, who does a fantastic job of framing and lighting the sex scenes as well as he does the car crash sequences. There are some very effective and evocative angles used here, and while the whole thing has a very cold, clinical look to it (not uncommon in Cronenberg's filmography), it works in the context of the story being told. Additionally, the score from composer Howard Shore adds elements of drama, mystery and even passion to the proceedings.
This isn't a film for all tastes, it was frequently derided as grotesque when it was released, and it will, no doubt, still manage to ruffle some feathers, particularly with more sensitive viewers (and especially in its uncut form) but, just like a car crash you see on the side of the highway, it's tough to turn away from and somehow continually fascinating.
Crash comes to Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection on a 50GB disc in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.66.1 widescreen taken from a "new 4k digital restoration" and taking up 28.9 GBs of space on the disc. This looks really nice, though one can't help but wonder how much better it would have looked on a UHD release (given that it's been released on that format in the UK and Germany by other labels), and why Criterion continues to lag behind other labels in this department. Regardless, picture quality is strong. There are no problems with any compression artifacts, detail is very nice and we get good depth here as well. The film's cool color scheme is replicated very nicely and there are no issues with any noise reduction, edge enhancement or visible compression artifacts. Some minor banding was noticed in a few spots, but other than that, no complaints.
The only audio option on the disc is a 24-bit DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, but it is a very good one. Dialogue is always easy to understand and follow, even some of the lines that are whispered or spoken in somewhat hushed tones. The score sounds great, and there are some nice directional effects noticeable throughout the movie, the crash scenes being obvious examples, where they rear channels are used quite effectively. Hiss, distortion and sibilance are never issues and the levels are always properly balanced. Optional subtitles are provided in English only.
Extras start off with the audio commentary that Cronenberg recorded for the Criterion Laserdisc release all those many years ago. If you haven't had the chance to hear it yet, it's an excellent track that covers a lot of ground, such as shooting on location in Toronto, having to shoot the crash scenes in a specific way, when and where he showed more restriction in certain scenes than he might have otherwise, what went into putting some of the film's more memorable set pieces together, how much he admired the cast that he was able to assemble for the production, how the film was received by critics at home and abroad, some of the controversy that surrounded the film upon its release, some of the trickiness involved in adapting Ballard's original novel, things that had to be changed a bit and why and lots more.
Aside from that, we also get a lengthy hour and forty-two minute Q&A from 1996 with Cronenberg and Ballard that took place at the National Film Theatre in London. The talk begins with Ballard explaining why the book is a cautionary tale more than anything else, and from there it covers the shoot, thoughts on the source material and challenges adapting it, the performances, specifics of the shoot and lots more. This is frequently very entertaining and consistently interesting, definitely worth your time if you're a fan of either the author or the director featured here.
Also included on the disc is thirty-eight-minutes of footage from a press conference that was held at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival that features Cronenberg, Suschitzky, Ballard, producers Robert Lantos and Jeremy Thomas and actors Rosanna Arquette, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas, James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger. There's lots of good talk here about what it was like on set, challenges involved in bringing Ballard's book to life and more.
Criterion has also included a nine-minute Behind The Scene compilation that is made up of footage shot on set during production as well as press interviews from the year that the film was made, 1996. Rounding out the extras on the disc are two separate trailers, menus and chapter selection options.
It's also worth pointing out that Criterion has included a color insert booklet containing credits for the feature and the disc as well as technical notes on the presentation and an essay by film critic Jessica Kiang that does a nice job of exploring the film's history and appeal.
Crash is a very strange film, but ultimately quite a fascinating one. It has a sense of dark humor to it mixed in with the horror and the eroticism that tend to be the focal points when the picture is discussed. While certainly not a film for everyone, the performances are excellent and Cronenberg's direction is as assured as it is bold and challenging. The Blu-ray release from Criterion looks and sounds very good and features a strong selection of extra features. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.