One of the most controversial films in Cronenberg’s career, Crash is arguably the closest Cronenberg has come to making a pure art film. At the very least, it’s devoid of the genre trappings that link The Fly, Dead Ringers, and even to some degree, Naked Lunch. Despite the furor that met its release (the film inspired countless critics to ruminate on the sexual proclivities of Canadians), it is probably his quietest, most sombre piece — and his most contradictory. It could be labelled lubricious or austere, and either description would be valid.
Though based on J.G. Ballard’s cult novel, Crash feels very much like a Cronenberg original. Ballard (Spader) is a movie producer whose relationship with his wife, Catherine (Unger), is curiously distant. Driving home one night, he’s involved in a car accident in which the other driver is killed, but the man’s wife, Dr. Helen Remington (Hunter), survives.
Ballard has a chance meeting with Helen that leads to a sexual encounter. Helen eventually introduces Ballard to Vaughan (Koteas), the leader of a cult that fetishizes car crashes, especially those involving celebrities. (Ballard first sees Vaughan as he’s re-enacting the death of James Dean before an enraptured group of acolytes.) Gradually, Ballard and Catherine become involved with the cult. After a series of bizarre vehicular flirtations (Vaughan effectively seduces Catherine by trying to run her off the highway), Vaughan has sex with Catherine in the back seat of his ramshackle car, while Ballard sneaks glances at them in the rear-view mirror. The couple’s connection with the cult culminates after Vaughan, again “flirting” with them on the highway, loses control and winds up plunging through the roof of a bus. The film concludes with Ballard and Catherine fornicating on the side of the highway after he’s driven her car off the road (a clear reference to Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend).
Crash features Cronenberg's familiar tropes, but they’re perhaps even more twisted here. Vaughan’s cult is even more deranged and marginal than the schemers in Scanners and Videodrome; the characters (especially the women) are so rigorously defined by their obsessions that they seem more shell-like than the denizens of Naked Lunch. This, of course, seems to be the point. Commodity fetishism has so overtaken the world of Crash that the characters' only response to it is to smash things, thus combining the sex and death equation with celebrity and consumer culture and adding an obsession with machinery and automation.
At the same time, Crash is chillingly abstract and hermetic, and probably Cronenberg’s most Kafka-esque work. It can be read in so many different ways it defies any single interpretation. Vaughan is the most vital character in the film and yet his car is close to the junkyard; contrast his car with Catherine’s gleaming new car. And the women who revere him, most notably Gabrielle (Arquette), are just as damaged. Gabrielle wears a set of metal braces that cover most of her body. One wonders whether Vaughan’s vitality is a sign of life or madness, or both?
The characters' absurd actions threaten to become laughable in a way they don't in the novel. (It can be quite easily interpreted as a very black comedy — or even a satire of a porn film.) As Roger Ebert observed, it’s about a fetish that no one has. It’s a testament to Cronenberg’s authority as a filmmaker and Howard Shore’s unsettling, hesitant score that the audience stops short of pointing and laughing in certain moments.
More than any of Cronenberg’s other films, Crash suggests affinities with the work of British filmmaker Peter Greenaway, except, where Greenaway’s characters are more likely to sit and watch themselves decay, Cronenberg’s go hurtling toward annihilation. It’s perversely magnificent. Crash was awarded a Special Jury Prize at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival for its “daring audacity.”