Few films generated such genuine controversy as David Cronenberg’s Crash on its release back in 1996. Tackling J.G. Ballard’s wilfully perverse source material head-on, Cronenberg’s kinky drama of fetish, addiction, and obsession caused consternation at Cannes and was famously banned by City of Westminster Council, which made its Leicester Square premiere a tricky proposition. Such ructions seem quaint now. The film does not. Crash veers fabulously across several intersections, between body horror, softcore pornography, arthouse drama, and arch satire.
James Ballard (James Spader) is a TV producer whose blanky empty marriage to Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) is enlivened by extramarital encounters, the details of which they bring back to the bedroom with them. Even this added spice keeps things sterile, until Ballard is involved in a horrific car accident. In recovery, he meets Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a car fresh fetishist who restages the fatal accidents of celebrities such as James Dean and Jayne Mansfield. Ballard also begins a sexual relationship with Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), the other survivor of his crash as both are pulled into Vaughan’s world.
There is not a huge amount of story in Crash. Instead, Cronenberg replicates visually Ballard’s almost mantra-like repetition of certain imagery: steering columns, instrument binnacles, Vaughan’s ‘heavy groin’. Cronenberg’s fascination with his customary theme of the intersection between technology and the body is all-encompassing. Even character is secondary; empty vessels hurtling together. Fortunately, there are several exemplary actors to flesh out these blank canvases, not the least of whom is James Spader. If Cronenberg is the ideal interpreter of Ballard’s prose, then Spader is the ideal performer to play Ballard. He’s an actor who can walk the line between outwardly respectable, but will gladly channel his inner sleaze, without becoming repellent. After the early stages of his career, the director had a knack of choosing the perfect actor – Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone, Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers – but Spader may be the most perfect fit of them all.
Unger is also great as a hyper-sexualised version of an enigmatic Hitchcockian blonde. There is a sly intelligence in her performance that elevates her tricky role above just a rote object or victim. Vaughan is the riskiest proposition; a genuine creepazoid that somehow has to be convincing as a quasi-Shamanic, cultish pied piper figure. Koteas excels, with just enough reptilian charm at work that it’s not completely unthinkable that people may be drawn to him and his freakish obsessions.
Really though, Crash a film of spectacle, although it’s often viewed from a sardonic distance. Even the costume design nods at the constant fascination with chrome and leather and how it interacts with the copious flesh, with Rosanna Arquette’s bizarre dress coming across as part medical brace, part S&M gear, and part glovebox. It’s also involved in the most infamous scene, in which Ballard manoeuvres the various braces, screws and callipers out the way in order to have his way with the vulval wound a previous accident carved into the back of Arquette’s leg.
Crash is as precision tooled as a racing car. It’s the only way it could possibly work. It is too cold and distant for straight horror fans, too inherently ridiculous for the serious arthouse audience, too visceral and strange for a Hollywood crowd that doesn’t hold with sex being added to its violence. Yet in its deadpan devotion to its ludicrous premise, it becomes as probing an examination of the nature of addiction and obsession than any straight drama on those themes. It is a pivotal film for Cronenberg as he moved partially away from the straight genre fare of his earlier work; its body horror comes not from alien parasites or psychic powers, but the very real, almost mundane, possibility of sustaining life-changing injuries in an auto wreck. Its glacial examination of compulsion and psychological oddities also anticipates purely cerebral like Cosmopolis and A Dangerous Method. It is, obviously, not for everyone, but buckle in for its unique tone and it is absolutely one of Cronenberg’s finest.
Available on Blu-ray now