It’s remarkable that David Cronenberg’s film of J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash even exists; it’s a disturbing, bleak work that examines its characters with the ice cold detachment of an autopsy and concerns nothing less than the meltdown of romance in a soulless society. James Spader stars as James Ballard, a completely vacuous, dead-eyed yuppie film maker who has reached an impasse in his sex life with his chilly blonde wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger, who looks as if she is in a permanent state of erotic reverie). The two spice up their love life as best they can with stories of extra-marital dalliances, but these are jaded, bored people, high-rise zombies looking for anything to break the sexual monotony. Driving like an idiot one night (you see these people by the dozens in California, driving talking on the phone, eating – everything but concentrating on the road), Ballard runs head on into a car, killing a man and injuring his wife. Recovering in a hospital, Ballard sees the wife, Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), and meets a brooding looking man he thinks is a doctor or an orderly, but who turns out to be Vaughn (Elias Koteas), a strange man who collects photographs of car accidents and their victims.
Ballard and Remington are strangely drawn to each other, and after a quick backseat fuck in an airport parking garage, they attend – in a jaw-dropping scene – a bizarre nighttime guerrilla theater where Vaughn and a stunt driver re-create (sans padding or helmets) the fatal 1955 crash of James Dean in his Porsche 555 Spider, the “Lil Bastard.” Vaughn takes them to meet the driver as well as Gabriella (Rosanna Arquette), a pot-smoking accident victim with both her legs in braces. Soon all of them are part of an unseen sub-culture of car crash freaks led by Vaughn (who lives in his black 1963 Lincoln), pairing off sexually and watching crash test dummy videos like they were porn. Vaughn tells Ballard his “project” is the liberation of the tremendous sexual energy in auto accidents. As part of this liberation, he takes photographs at a surreal nighttime freeway wreck, posing Catherine among the car bodies, their frames twisted like Cesar sculptures. But once all the sexual possibilities are exhausted – Vaughn with Catherine in the backseat of the Lincoln in a car wash, Ballard with Gabriella in a car, Ballard and Vaughn in the Lincoln – the sex has become a bore again, and Vaughn comes gunning for Ballard and Catherine, aiming his Lincoln at them on a rainy dark freeway before exiting this world in a matter befitting his obsession.
This is an incredibly dark look at erotic obsession and how closely the links between sex and death can be examined. Cronenberg, fascinated as he is by the violation of the human body (see The Fly), gives us some loving close-ups of bodies and faces scarred by auto wrecks. At least one scene, where Spader licks a huge scar that runs down the back of Arquette’s leg, has been known to clear theaters. The acting is appropriately chilly, with Spader and Unger outdoing each other in the living dead department and Koteas brilliantly intense as the insidious Vaughn. There is a great deal of fairly frank sex. Some of it is erotic (Spader and Unger on their bed), some of it as disturbing as the accidents themselves (Spader and Koteas licking each others’ fresh tattoos), and the film’s final scene, which demonstrates what Ballard now considers love for his wife, takes the sex-and-car-crash theme to a extreme, disturbing limit.
Certainly not for the easily offended, Crash nevertheless continues one of the most fascinating filmographies in contemporary cinema – a work that fits comfortably along side films like Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch, films that peer into psychological corners of society not before exposed to the light. Dark, scary, ugly and beautiful, Cronenberg’s cinema realizes some of our darkest thoughts.