Wednesday, August 6, 2008

My Favorite Scene: Crash

Paul Haggis’ 2005 Best Picture winner is full of emotionally charged scenes. Take your pick: Thandie Newton stuck in a burning car, Beverly Todd telling Don Cheadle he killed her son, Matt Dillon informing rookie cop Ryan Phillippe of his inexperience on the job, Sandra Bullock bitching out her husband, and so on. I could write about any scene in the film as being the best and I wouldn’t be wrong. Each storyline is given its own depth and structure to fuel the basis of a modern-day film masterpiece.

By far the most engrossing scene is when Michael Peña’s young daughter gets mistakenly “shot” by Shaun Toub. But that sequence means next to nothing without the foundation of the characters, which is set in a previous moment.

Early in the film, shortly after Bullock dismisses Peña as a “tattooed gangbanger”, we get our first glimpse into the film’s underlying spirit. Crash was ingenious in the way it exposed racial discrimination and proved most of our assumptions involving race to be dead wrong. On the surface, it’s hard not to assume Peña’s locksmith character as a thugged-out, gun-totting gangster. But once we are invited into his home, we are exposed for our narrow-mindedness.
Peña, getting home late from a job, notices that his daughter’s light is still on. He goes in her room and finds her under the bed, resting peacefully in a makeshift space full of cozy blankets and stuffed animals. Peña lies down, facing her, and so begins Crash’s warmest and most enduring moment. Studio heads wanted Haggis to cut the scene down to a mere moment, only to highlight the significance of Peña as a family man.

Thankfully, Haggis fought and lobbied for this extended take.

Peña asks his daughter (the wondrous Ashlyn Sanchez) if she still thinks about the bullet that came through her window in the previous home they lived in. She says she does, and in an effort to comfort her, Peña tells an elaborate fantasy story of how he was supposed to give her an invisible, impenetrable cloak on her birthday. A cloak that cannot be breached by knives or bullets. The premise sounds silly, but my God if these two don’t pull it off.

Young Sanchez is a revelation. Her youthful charm matches Peña’s playful wisdom line-for-line; she conducts herself as well as any of the A-listers in the film. But it’s Peña (who should’ve received an Oscar nomination for his criminally underrated performance) that steals us.
As he slowly, with great specific detail, takes off his invisible cloak, his daughter watches with an insightfully curious eye. He wraps the imaginary cloak around his daughter, mindful of her hair and ties it snuggly around her neck. He tucks her into bed and as he quietly leaves her room, he looks back to see her smoothly stroking her new blanket of security. The actors are so natural and convincing that because they believe it, we believe it. Taking this moment to heart makes it a little less shocking that Crash beat out front-runner Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture (does this scene justify that? Well, that’s another story.)

There is no screaming, yelling, or racial slurs thrown around like most of the other scenes in the film. Instead, the doors are opened for the dramatic climax of the film. Later, when Peña clutches his daughter, silently screaming into the afternoon sky, devastated by the life that was just taken from him, we are moved beyond words with one sentence. “It’s okay,” Sanchez whispers into Peña’s ear, “I’ll protect you.”

The essence of Crash does not lie in the screaming matches and arguments. It lies in the innocence of a girl’s bedroom floor. A girl protected from the bounds of hatred by the impenetrable force of love. Love that has the power to shield us from the unnerving cycle of discrimination.


  1. I didn't like the overall movie as much as everyone else seemed to, but you're right, that is definitely a great scene. Lesson: if the studio wants to cut it, keep it in.

    1. I definitely belong on the list of people who have turned against Crash. While not as strongly as others, this was one I fell in love with in 2005, but now think is just okay. That said, there are a few scenes, like the one here, that have stood the test of time.

      This was my favorite film of 2005 in 2005, now... probably wouldn't crack the Top 25. Oh well.

  2. Very interesting essay on this scene. If I had to pick what I thought was the best scene, it would have to be Sandra Bullock's big scene after she and Brendan Fraser got carjacked. Despite her spewing out clichéd dialogue, she still managed to bring such power to it and reveal how she isn't a creep, but just a rather traumatized victim that doesn't rely on our sympathy. I still consider Crash one of the worst BP winners, but I can't deny how brilliant Sandra Bullock was imo.

    1. Oh I fully agree with you, she really brought it in this movie. And I too love that scene you're talking about. She's so unapologetic in it. And you can read Fraser's face in that scene... this is a guy who deals with this woman's behavior All. The. Time.