Back in the halcyon days of 1996, David Cronenberg’s Toronto-shot film Crash unleashed an unexpected tidal wave of moral outrage upon its release. The walkouts and boos during the film’s premiere at Cannes, the resulting Special Jury Prize for “audacity” and its thrashing by the UK press have become the stuff of legend. Looking back, it’s hard not to feel a sense of pride at this rare moment of Canadian film notoriety; truly, it’s part of our heritage.
25 years later,with the controversy far in the rearview mirror, Crash has been re-released in a beautiful 4K edition, bringing it to a wider audience for discovery and re-appraisal. Based on the novel by J.G. Ballard, the film centers on James Ballard (James Spader) and his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), trapped in a cooling open marriage. One night James collides with another car head-on. He strikes up a sexual relationship with the survivor, Dr. Helen Remmington (Holly Hunter) who introduces him to a cultish underground network of car crash fetishists. They’re led by the charismatic and scarred Dr. Vaughan (Elias Koteas) whose hobbies include re-creating celebrity car crashes as performance art. In true Cronenberg fashion, he (and increasingly, James) rationalize the group’s erotic obsession as a distinct philosophy fusing sex, the body and technology.
The new transfer highlights the way Cronenberg’s lens travels over shining bodies (human and metal) with a languorous and detached gaze, while the stark, sloping greyness of Toronto’s highways feels all the more oppressive. Meanwhile, the actors (particularly Spader and Unger) perform with a calculated dullness, adding to the viewer’s sense of voyeuristic discomfort, particularly as the sex gets increasingly transgressive.In the harsh light of 2021, Crash also reads as satirical, particularly when considering the rising wealth gaps in so many urban centres since its release, to say nothing of the proliferation of highways and overpriced condos. This is the playground of the disaffected and the wealthy, seeking thrills while oblivious to the consequences, and herein lies the ecstasy and tragedy of James’ predicament. Through this lens, Crash feels like a critique of our overstimulated and perpetually needy culture, making it as potent and haunting as ever.