Crash (2004) Paul Haggis
The 2004 film, Crash, directed by Paul Haggis is a drama which fundamentally concerns the underlying racial tensions present in society and its effects on various people in Los Angeles post the September 11th terrorist attacks. Over the course of thirty-six hours, the film explores the way in which eleven strangers’ can impact each other’s lives, and how a person’s true character can often controvert their stereotype. The film observes themes such as racial prejudice and the abuse of power through the character of Officer John Ryan, a white American police officer.
John’s journey demonstrates both the frightening evil and immense goodness in people, by showing two separate events which occur throughout the film. Techniques such as dialogue, setting and camera angles are used to effectively to show this contrast in Officer Ryan’s personality and how he develops as a character between his introductory scene to his last. Throughout the film, the audience experiences a contradictive journey with officer John Ryan that paints him as both villain and hero, as a result of how the film epitomizes the realities of racism.
Officer Ryan’s racial prejudice stems from the destructive impact that local affirmative action policies had on his father’s business. Haggis uses a low camera angle, showing John looking down at his father on the toilet, depicting his father as weak and ill. This angle also shows how John is saddened by his ill father. Close ups are also used to show John’s defeated facial expressions, leading the audience to sympathise with him. In John’s following scene, the audience discovers that his anger from his father manifests in prejudice. This is evident when he exhibits a racist attitude towards a black health insurance agent, Shaniqua Johnson. In a scene where Ryan calls up the HMO insurance agency, seeking help for his ill father, the operator informs him that they are unable to help A close up of John rubbing his face is used to show his frustration and annoyance. John asks for her name, to which the operator responds with “Shaniqua Johnson”. John immediately retaliates with “Shaniqua? Big f**king surprise that is.”
The use of dialogue in this scene helps to capture Johns prejudice. His dialogue also suggests that he attributes his father’s continual illness to the fact the insurance agent is black and unwilling to help. This scene helps to convey to the audience how John feels powerless and out of frustration he decides to batter her ethnicity in attempt to gain said lack of power. Referring to the operator’s name, Shaniqua, which is of African-American origin, it is commonly associated with negative ideology by society. Ryan allows this stereotype to fuel his anger towards Shaniqua, which allows the audience to see Ryan as a bigoted racist.
The darkness of Ryan’s character is further developed when he unlawfully touches a black woman, Christine, after a heated argument with Shaniqua earlier that day. To vent his frustration and anger he abuses his position of power as a police officer for personal gain. Officer Ryan and his partner officer Hanson are on patrol when they get a call to watch out for a black late-model Lincoln Navigator. A vehicle which matches the description drives past, though the number plates do not match. When Ryan’s partner informs him of this, Ryan continues to pull them over despite this, sneering to officer Hanson “They were doin’ something.” suggesting that he is determined to assert his dominance over the black people. In this particular scene extreme close up shots are used of Officer John Ryan’s hands moving down Christine’s body from waist down, and then from her legs to her behind.
The use of an extreme close up panning down Christine’s body puts an emphasis on what John is doing, molesting a woman. Close up shots are used of Christine’s face showing her discomfort and humiliation, caused by someone who is supposed to protect. In this scene Officer Ryan’s tone of voice is quite demanding, “That’s quite a mouth you have.” In the background a faint eerie track is playing which adds to the scene that depicts the foul play of the police. Haggis uses noticeably dark lighting in this scene. doing this allows John to be seen as quite surreal and frightening, helping to depict the negative flaw in Johns character. Officer Ryan goes through a stark transition, conflicting the audiences view of him. Even though Officer Ryan is initially perceived as racist, he is still able to produce good actions which force the audience to re-examine their opinions of him.
This links to the film’s message in that our perceptions about people can easily be changed depending environment that we see them in. When Christine is in a car accident, Officer Ryan is the first officer present. A heavy classical track with sorrowful tones is playing in the background throughout this scene. It slowly intensifies as the beat matches up with the petrol dripping from her car and the flames from the other car building in the background, suggesting danger. At that point, Christine realises who Officer Ryan is and starts rejecting his help, screaming “Get your f***king hands off me!” The music overpowers the dialogue of the characters, thus, making the viewer focus on the scene rather than what they’re saying, putting emphasis on Christine’s panic caused by Officer Ryan’s presence.
Officer Ryan retaliates the same tone “Lady, Im not going to f***king hurt you!” Officer Ryan continues narrating his movements to Christine, “Im just going to reach across your lap.” Doing this shows the audience that Officer Ryan acknowledges the impact his previous actions have left on Christine. An extreme close up of when officer Ryan pulling down Christine’s skirt is a fundamental shot which shows the point where he gains not only Christine’s trust but the trust of the audience. The music builds dramatically as Officer Ryan struggles to free Christine and the gas leaks and get lit with the fire.
Haggis uses a wide shot showing both Christine and Officer Ryan’s fearful expression as the flames come into contact with Christine’s vehicle. When Ryan is pull out of the car he claws he way but in to pull Christine out with him before the vehicle explodes. The use of the wide shot helped to show that even though Officer Ryan was in fear of his life, he still continued to save Christine, showing his heroism. This is shot in broad daylight, with a golden hue shining on the scene. This is in contrast to the dark night scene where Ryan pulls over Christine and her partner Cameron, where his dark nature is revealed. This scene shows a dramatic transition in John’s character, forcing the viewer to re-evaluate their perception of John, from an intimidating Officer to a glorified hero.
This is essential to the film as it conveys the film’s message and forces the audience to question the motives behind your prejudices and opinions. In the film Crash, Haggis explores ideas and perceptions which people develop around others and their stereotypes. Officer Ryan’s change from a prejudiced officer to a heroic individual is exposed through the techniques of camera shots, setting and dialogue. This transformation helps achieve the film’s purpose by raising issues within the audience, forcing the viewer to re-evaluate the ideals behind their discriminations. It gives reader an insight into how false their perceptions about a man can be and Officer Ryan’s change reflects this. This transition from cruelty and intimidation to heroism and bravery highlights the questions the film forces you to raise: is the ideology behind a person’s prejudice correct, or is it simply blinded by a negative first impression?