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Ambitious ‘Crash’ is a stimulating drama

Director Paul Haggis has a Robert Altman-esque flair. By John Hartl

Sandra Bullock is anything but Miss Congeniality in “Crash,” Paul Haggis’ stimulating, wildly ambitious snapshot of post-9/11 Los Angeles. She rips into her husband (Brendan Fraser), trashes people indiscriminately, uses her cellphone as a lethal weapon and finally gets angry with herself for being so angry.

Like so many of the characters Haggis has created for this crowded canvas, she’s a victim of tunnel vision. She’s so preoccupied with her own unhappy state of mind that she has difficulty connecting with her husband, a Los Angeles district attorney who has other things to worry about.

They’ve just escaped a carjacking, and Fraser’s character is forced to spin the incident for the press. Meanwhile, a police officer (Don Cheadle) is preoccupied with family problems, another policeman (Matt Dillon) stops and harasses an upscale couple (Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton), and there are brief but telling incidents involving a Korean couple, a defiant Persian store owner and those nervy carjackers.

Some of these stories are more carefully developed than others, and some beg for expansion (the DVD will probably include a feature’s worth of deleted scenes). Perhaps the one with the most impact involves Dillon’s character, whose green new partner (Ryan Phillippe) wants nothing to do with him. For awhile, the audience is encouraged to agree.

But Haggis, who wrote “Million Dollar Baby” and makes his directing debut with “Crash,” is interested in digging deeper and finding reasons for the Dillon character’s behavior. Rarely do American movies provide this kind of back story, and in this case it turns out to be considerably more than a justification for stupidity.

When Dillon’s apparently racist cop is given the opportunity to prove his bravery, we understand his history and his ability to rise above the pettiness that seems to rule his life. This astonishing reversal reverberates through the rest of the movie, illuminating actions that only make sense when we’re allowed a peek at the whole picture.

Haggis’ “Crash” is not to be confused with David Cronenberg’s 1996 film of J.G. Ballard’s novel, “Crash,” though all three deal with the social consequences of car crashes. The style of the new film is reminiscent of Robert Altman’s 1993 portrait of Los Angeles, “Short Cuts,” though it’s more directly concerned with race and class.

Indeed, Haggis and Robby Moresco’s script (inspired by a carjacking that rattled Haggis several years ago) is sometimes guilty of emphasizing the obvious. Often it’s Haggis the director who saves it, especially in the Bullock-Fraser episode, which is shot in a way that makes background figures anything but peripheral. He’s very good with actors, especially Bullock, who breathlessly dominates her few minutes of screen time, and Dillon and Newton, whose final scene together is unexpectedly moving.

For all its sketchiness, for all of its schematic touches, “Crash” marks the debut of a director to watch. Haggis already seems as comfortable with the Altman style as Altman does, and his picture is one of the few 2005 American movies worth recommending.