Deborah Kara Unger and James Spader in 1996's "Crash."

Crash November 11, 2019


David Cronenberg



James Spader

Holly Hunter

Elias Koteas

Deborah Kara Unger

Rosanna Arquette









1 Hr., 40 Mins.


here are no people, as far as I know, who get turned on after witnessing (or getting into) a head-on collision on the 5. Crash, David Cronenberg’s 1996 adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel, is a watchable psychosexual drama detailing the lives of this unusual class of autassassinophiles, that is if they were to walk among us. The movie, clinical and cold, stars James Spader as James Ballard, a movie producer. Nothing in the movie

pushes him to display any real sort of emotion — not even the fetish he will eventually develop. He and his wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), who mills around life as detachedly as he does, are in an open marriage perhaps as a way to spruce things up. Aside from appearing to not enjoy being around each other, their sex life is categorically stale. In the brief, graphic scenes in which we see them naked, with their limbs wrapped, they either make an effort to look bored or verbally concoct a fantasy to put their minds elsewhere. Yet the disengagement has an allure. It’s as though Catherine and James are competing. Who can remain the most unbothered by life’s offerings? 


Shortly into Crash, James gets in a car accident. He survives but is left with a gnarly leg injury. The guy in the other car isn’t so lucky: He flies through his windshield, then James’s, and doesn’t live to tell the tale. The victim’s passenger, Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), does. And soon, Helen and James are enmeshed in each other’s lives. First they have a tense encounter in the hospital ward. Then, unplanned, they’ve at the same time gone to the junkyard to sit in their banged-up vehicles. The run-ins, which come with the expected introductions, are innocuous enough. But one farther down the line is disconcerting. James gives Helen a lift somewhere and they get in a car accident that comes close to recreating what had happened to them a few days ago. But rather than be shaken up by the accident, they park in an airport lot and have sex in James’ front seat — an indicator of what’s to come.


Soon Helen, James, and then Catherine are caught up in the dogma of Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a scarred quasi-cult leader. Vaughan has formed a nanoscale society in which all members have an erotic obsession involving car crashes. Remington and Ballard’s first real encounter with Vaughan is at a gathering he’s hosting, during which he and a couple of other men recreate the collision that killed James Dean. They wear no seatbelts or padding — a decision that, apparently, makes the staging more carnal.


Crash, after a while, starts to numb. It mostly devolves into a series of explicit sex scenes backed by increasingly dangerous scenarios involving (as we would expect) car crashes. The last one seen here is the boldest. James follows Catherine down the freeway, keeps tapping her silver convertible’s bumper with his beat-up traffic-cone-red sedan, then runs her off the road. The bumping is foreplay. The actual smashing and flipping over is the orgasm. Neither person dies, astoundingly, but just before the couple starts fucking under Catherine’s upside-down machine on the hillside below, James whispers something in her ear that indicates that the ultimate climax, really, is death. 


I didn’t like Crash and I didn’t especially like the performances, either. The actors, here, are icebergs with tacked-on eyes, noses, ears. Robots could take their places. Unger is well-suited for the material, though: she’d make for a great femme fatale in any decades-old noir. She’s sexily glacial. Unlikability notwithstanding, Cronenberg’s commitment to the movie’s unsexy sexy concept is so impressive that I watched the movie interested if only because of its audacity, and the seriousness with which Cronenberg takes its audacity. What’s funny about Cronenberg is that his filmography — with a few exceptions — almost entirely comprises movies that are comprehensively uncomfortable to sit through. Yet one keeps coming back for more, probably because, even though one rarely orthodoxly likes participating in whatever the director has to offer, he’s great at making you take seriously features with bewildering concepts. Crash is a zenith. You watch it astonished that Cronenberg not only dared to make it but dared to make it with such artful dedication. B+