‘Crash’ (1996) Criterion Blu-Ray Review – Cronenberg’s Psychosexual Drama Is No Easy Watch

While there have been many films that have inspired passionate reactions from audience members, few have been quite as polarizing as the 1996 film Crash from director David Cronenberg (Shivers). Depending on who you ask, the film can be a pyschosexual masterpiece worthy of all the praise one can muster, or it can be tasteless garbage that should be hidden away and never be viewed by anyone ever again. Unfortunately for the latter group, the incredible new release from the Criterion Collection ensures that the film will not be going anywhere anytime soon. Based on the 1973 novel of the same name by J.G. Ballard, Crash is an uncomfortable, clinically-minded look at a group of highly complicated individuals who are aroused by car crashes. The Ballard novel tackled issues of perverse sexuality as tied to techno-paranoia, which makes it no surprise that it spoke to a director whose career was made on such themes. In one of the rare stories where an author is over-the-moon with how his work was adapted for the screen, Cronenberg honored the spirit of the novel while simultaneously updating it and transporting it to North America to spin his tale of social paralysis in the face of rapidly developing modernity. 

The film centers on sexually adventurous film producer James Ballard (James Spader) and his equally dynamic wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger). The two have an open relationship and speak honestly about the desires each other have and indulge in when they are not around one another. As with most of the characters in Cronenberg’s story, these two do not present as completely of this reality. The stakes are intentionally heightened by Cronenberg in a blatant attempt at social satire. Catherine is the subject of many of the most salacious moments of the story, yet the nakedness of her character does not equate to what could be coined pornography. She is a very self-assured woman who talks freely about her needs in a bluntly clinical way that robs the audience of any titillation. James is unashamed of his various kinks, but also somewhat shy behind the eyes. There is no passion behind any of his sexual encounters; rather, he is performing an approximation of human connection. One night, James inadvertently gets into a head-on collision that leaves one man dead and the man’s wife, Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), injured. Through the jolt of this car crash, James heads down a twisted path with Helen that will forever change his life. 

The characters which James encounters are similarly, figuratively not of this world. In an almost improbable turn of events, Helen has a circle of friends that fall right in line with the kinkiness that James displays. The dead husband of Helen is of the least amount of importance possible; these individuals are trying to feel something in the world, and the crash has shaken something loose for them sexually. James is blissfully unhinged as he begins his affair with Helen, which he is all too happy to share with Catherine. James also meets the supremely troubled Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a crash-obsessed individual who pushes the limits of decency as he gleefully photographs freshly-mangled car wrecks on the road. That is not even mentioning all the crashes he instigates on his psychotic journey with James. There is also Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), a crash-survivor restricted by steel braces who, like everyone else in the group, has a fetish for cars. There are a lot of dynamics at play here as everyone is having sex with one another at some point in an effort to feel alive. Cronenberg intentionally omits any semblance of backstory or tangible emotion to hold on for any of these individuals. They are robotic, libidinous characters that are heading down an increasingly dangerous path. 

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The hot-button question that haunts this film is, does it have any redeeming artistic merit? In simple terms, yes it does. While my personal opinions do not lean towards the “masterpiece” side of the spectrum, it is a very haunting film that has not left my head for several days. I can only imagine how these thoughts will evolve upon future viewings. What is readily apparent from the first time you watch the film is how absolutely fantastic all of these performers are in their roles. Cronenberg has created an intentionally sterile world, and these actors find their way to their characters through this filter. Deborah Kara Unger is the shining star of this movie, in my opinion. The subdued pain she conveys near the end of the movie as she struggles with not being able to accomplish something that she wants so dearly is palpable. Everyone in this film is giving a fearless performance that you have to respect, even when it makes you uncomfortable. Cronenberg is a master at delivering gut punches in the course of excoriating  society’s relationship with technology. Rather than go for excess, he has made a visceral film grounded in the sparseness. This is a spatially empty world that the characters inhabit to reflect the lack of substance in their core. There is more going on beneath the surface whether you want to engage with it or not. The movie provokes a reaction, and that is reason enough to give it a shot if you are an adventurous viewer. Some of the best conversations stem from heightened emotions. 

Video Quality

Crash has been granted a director-of-photography-supervised 4K restoration via the Criterion Collection for this stunning new Blu-Ray disc. Exploring the city with this new transfer almost makes it feel like a whole new film. The cold, metallic aesthetic is incredibly striking in its clarity. Facial features are likewise detailed with fine lines and pores detectable alongside natural skin tones. Colors are vibrant without being unnatural for the environment. The film is not one bursting with color, but certain cars and pieces of clothing do make an impression. This film primarily takes place in darkness or low-lighting, and black levels on this disc are deep and inky without any noticeable blocking or compression artifacts. In the deepest blacks, there does appear to be the beginning of crush which thankfully does not amount to much. The film grain present is beautifully natural and consistent while allowing fine details to shine through. Subtle details stand out with greater clarity than ever before, especially in the mangled beauty of the wrecked vehicles. Fans of the film will be over the moon to be able to finally upgrade their ancient DVD copies. 

Audio Quality

The film comes with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that is quite powerful and well balanced. One of the standout aspects of Crash is the unnerving score from Howard Shore, and it sounds natural and powerful from beginning to end. Environmental effects play a substantial role in the film, and this track brings these elements to life quite capably. The directionality is quite precise so sounds always present as natural when coming from their respective points. Dialogue comes through crisp and clear without being overwhelmed by any of the other sounds. Activity in the low end delivers when it makes sense within the story, such as the understated moments of cars crashing into one another. There are absolutely no detectable instances of damage to report. The Criterion Collection has delivered a fierce track for a film that capably brings this heightened world to life. 

Special Features

The Criterion Blu-Ray of Crash includes a foldout booklet featuring the essay “The Wreck of the Century” by Variety film critic Jessica Kiang in which she provides a great amount of context and insight into the film that helps you understand on a deeper level the themes on display. The reverse side of this foldout features a textless poster of the artwork featured on the front case. The on-disc special features are as follows: 

  • Audio Commentary: An archival audio commentary track with Director David Cronenberg recorded in 1997 that is a fascinating listen. Not only does Cronenberg give background on production details and casting anecdotes, but he also explains certain plot motivations and artistic choices that might help clarify things for more dubious audiences. Cronenberg has never been one to shy away from anything shocking, but he is convincing in his beliefs that everything in the film has an artistic reason for existing. If you are on the fence about the film, give this a listen and see how it impacts your perception. 
  • Ballard and Cronenberg: A 1-hour-and-42-minute filmed lecture moderated by the Guardian featuring Director David Cronenberg and author J.G. Ballard held at the British Film Institute in 1996. In this engrossing conversation, the participants discuss the controversy of the film, the way in which they view it as a cautionary tale, the passion the actors had for the project, the lack of a moral stand in the story, the importance of sex scenes in the film and more. This conversation is incredibly illuminating and worth your time. 
  • Cannes Press Conference: A 38-minute press conference held at the 1996 edition of the Cannes Film Festival with David Cronenberg, producers Jeremy Thomas and Robert Lantos, James Spader, Deborah Kara Unger, Elias Koteas, Holly Hunter, and author J.G. Ballard. The film was extremely controversial when it debuted at the festival and the critics challenged Cronenberg and the other participants as to the artistic merit of the film. This is one of the few times on the disc where you get to hear directly from the actors as to their approach with the film and general thoughts on the subject matter. This is one of my favorite supplements on the disc. 
  • Press-Kit Footage: A nine-minute electronic press kit prepared by New Line Cinema which includes additional interviews with Ballard and the cast and crew, along with some behind-the-scenes footage. 
  • Trailers: Both the US and International trailers are provided on the disc. This is a difficult film to market, but it is interesting to see what each trailer chooses to highlight. The US trailer leans more traditional, while the International trailer feels more in line with the spirit of the film. 
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Final Thoughts

David Cronenberg is a director that has a sensibility that you either respond to or you do not. His movies are challenging and often strange, but they are also incredibly inventive and daring at the same time. Crash feels like Cronenberg working at his highest level, for better or for worse depending on your feelings towards him. The story is definitely not a dime-a-dozen and the performers are putting in a hell of an effort bringing it to life. It will very likely make you squirm in discomfort, and that is the type of thing that would make Cronenberg smile. The Criterion Collection has released a fantastic new Blu-Ray with stellar A/V presentation and some substantial special features. Fans of the film will be more than pleased with this release. Recommended 

Crash is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray and DVD. 

Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.

Disclaimer: The Criterion Collection has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.


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