At Face Value 'Crash' is one sick movie

Review: Cronenberg's film gives sex and violence a bad name.

March 21, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Crash" illustrates the power of an idea to drive a movie -- even, or especially, a bad idea.

And, oh my, is the central idea of "Crash" bad! Rancid, putrid, offensive. The idea merits its NC-17 rating on purely intellectual grounds.

The movie, which opens today at the Charles, is, on the other hand, a definite hoot from hell, a sick kick for the ultra-jaded. One can certainly see why its crazed bravado was both booed and feted at Cannes and why Ted Turner, who owns the studio, almost refused to release it.

Derived from a 1973 novel by British sci-fi bad boy J.G. Ballard, it basically watches as an upscale Toronto couple, used to life in the sexual fast lane, allows itself to be seduced by the force's darkest side. The Ballards, James and Katherine, drift into a culture that finds sexual stimulation among the smeared flesh, bent metal, shattered glass and bones and stench of octane and blood that attend an automobile catastrophe.

That's it: car crash = sex. Duh.

As a recent survivor of such a close encounter (she hit me at 50, broadside, and if Acura didn't build such stout cars you'd be reading somebody else in this space!), I can tell you there wasn't much sexual stimulation in the experience. Perhaps it is exactly that perversity that drove Ballard -- the complete opposition of mechanical destruction and physical creation -- and perhaps that is what drives the spectacularly creepy director David Cronenberg toward such a troubling threnody.

Another way of looking at the film is as "The Joy of Sex, Part MCLXVIII"; it's definitely for graduate students in this area. As the film opens, the happy couple (James is played by the one-man chilly-scene-in-winter James Spader and his wife Catherine by Deborah Unger) are enjoying powerful sexual experiences -- unfortunately with other people. They seem to be still in love, but each has turned (with the other's blessing) to stimulation and release elsewhere. In their relationship, something is missing -- they just don't realize it's the ambulance and the state cop with the flare.

But some people are just lucky: Soon enough, James has a head-on with another car, killing the husband. He is astounded, as he sits there in post-traumatic fog, drenched in his victim's and his own blood, to notice the survivor in the other car -- the just-widowed Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) -- seizing the opportunity to masturbate.

He meets her in rehab; she's ahead of him in the game, and soon they're having sex in the car that killed her husband now stored in that museum of violent death called the impound lot. Are these guys party animals or what?

Quickly, she becomes his guide into the wacky world of crash fetishists, a small band of mutants, most of them crash survivors, who appear to worship at the altar of crippled flesh and crumpled steel. The film makes a completely unsavory connection between orthopedic devices -- necessary accoutrements in a culture where most people have shattered pelvises and whiplashed backs -- and the latex corsets and gussets of leather fetishism. Man, my goose pimples was gittin' goose pimples. But I sure didn't look away.

The movie gets yet stranger. The central figure in the cult is Vaughan (Elias Koteas) and one blackly comic plot thread follows as he and his fellows try to re-create for others, as a kind of performance art, Great Car Crashes of Western Man. The death of James Dean, in his Porsche Spyder, in 1955, is but one station of the cross on the way to the Big One, the Sistine Chapel ceiling of car crash re-creations: Jayne Mansfield's beloved beheading in 1967. These people are the lost. They yearn to combine orgasms of the reproductive and the hydraulic systems and die in twin convulsions of sex and horsepower. Talk about auto-eroticism!

Yet the secret arc under all this voluptuous carnage happens to be an arc of healing. Cronenberg isn't really as brave as he thinks, even if he never averts his gaze from suffering. Slice away the bent metal, and the movie is about a marriage repairing itself. Despite the proclamations of radical avant-gardism and sexual outreness, underneath one discovers a tepid little bourgeoise feel-good drama about a Mr. and Mrs. re-inventing their sex life. It may worship fetishism but its secret saint is Dr. Ruth.

When finally Catherine and James have their own head-on, it's not a tragedy, no siree, it's a liberation: At last, the two darn kids can get together again. Ain't love grand?

'Crash'

Starring James Spader, Holly Hunter and Deborah Unger

Directed by David Cronenberg

Released by Fine Line

Rated NC-17 (Extreme violence and sex.)

Sun score: ** 1/2

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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