James Spader is a man who derives sexual pleasure from car crashes in this deeply strange and erotic thriller, now restored in 4K
Sex scenes are piled on top of each other like cars at a scrapyard in David Cronenberg's disturbing, muscular study of vehicular eroticism – now restored in 4K. People talk about Crash as “the good Crash” (any excuse to stick it to Paul Haggis' 2004 Oscar bait race-relations drama). But “good,” in its most generally accepted definition, doesn't seem quite right for a film of this uniquely disturbing design. What Crash does leave on the viewer is an unmistakable impression, like a dent in the side of a vehicle following a collision.
It's always fascinating to be reminded that James Spader, who has a naturally submissive and nebbish air, became an icon of sexually-charged cult cinema in the late '80s and '90s – most famously with Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Here, cast in a similar mode, he stars as TV producer James Ballard (named after J.G. Ballard, who penned the book on which this film is based) who's in an open relationship with wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) – though there's a sense they've both grown bored with conventional sex and are currently in the pursuit of new highs.
Ballard's life takes a strange turn after he's involved in a horrific car accident in which another driver is brutally killed. The only other survivor is a woman named Helen (an impressive performance by Holly Hunter) who Ballard notices is deriving a kind of sexual pleasure in the moment right after impact. Their meeting and subsequent affair leads Ballard to a cult of car fanatics, led by a man named Vaughn (Elias Koteas), who restages the infamous car crashes that killed celebrities like James Dean and Jane Mansfield.
Cronenberg's long-standing thematic obsession with the intersection of the human body and new technology is perfectly matched to the material of the novel. These characters view vehicles as extensions of themselves – pathways to finding sexual pleasure in that unknowable space between life and death, where flesh and metal are bound together in the moment of impact.
Nothing about Crash feels realistic or particularly believable and at times it can be tempting to laugh at the ridiculousness and seriousness of it all. But the overall sense of detachment from any recognisable reality makes it easy to fall under the film's eerie and – at times – languorous spell. Meanwhile, Howard Shore's ominous and oppressive score succeeds in creating an atmosphere of genuine discomfort.
Essentially Crash is a film that moves from one erotically-charged set-piece to the next, the fetishes growing more perverse – and more difficult to watch. But there is a surprising formal elegance and preciseness to the look and feel of this movie that gives it an oddly respectful quality. Crash isn't, as the uninitiated might assume based on its controversial reputation, trash. You might not find yourself convinced that cars and sex have any business being associated with one another, but Cronenberg's exploration of the autoerotic still makes for an oddly thrilling ride.
The restored 4K edition of Crash is now available on digital platforms.Where to watch