The American movie theater of 1996 was a disastrous place. There were two alien invasions (Independence Day and Mars Attacks!), a fleet of tornados (Twister) and an apocalyptic threat of chemical warfare (The Rock). Added up, these catastrophes banked roughly $681 million in box office returns. With the success of such deadly spectacles in mind, one would think the public was well-acquainted with Freud’s death drive, the “instinct of destruction directed against the external world.” But these popular films sacrifice psychological ambiguity for coherent happy endings. As a result, one 1996 film stands apart from the rest. Exploring Freud’s “pressure towards death” without giving in to convention, Crash is a reminder that human life is stranger than we can imagine. Twenty years after its release, the film’s genuinely destructive energy and theoretical open-endedness continues to confound.

Directed by the iconoclastic master of body horror, Crash is a vital piece of the David Cronenberg canon. Adapted from a seemingly unfilmable novel by J. G. Ballard, it’s a sensational portrait of a group of people who take sexual pleasure in watching, experiencing and narrowly surviving car crashes. The film combines long sequences of cold, explicit sex with clipped, postmodern dialogue and a slew of unnerving accidents (the production wrecked 25 cars in total).

Most plots have external negative forces but Crash has no bad guy. Its tension lies on the inside, in the peculiar way each character acts upon their fetish. When the film opens, James (James Spader) and his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) are sleeping with other people. Their marriage is open, and not only do they screw beautiful people during their lunch breaks, they tell each other about it when they get home. When James accidentally causes a head-on collision with another car, a man flies through his windshield and dies. James sits calmly in the car and studies the blood on the dead man’s wrist. In the eerie quiet of the car, a newfound fetish is born.

In the hospital ward, James is severely wounded. Cronenberg frames his grisly injuries with a wonder that borders on obsession. They are deep, discolored and repulsive but maybe that’s the point. Cronenberg wants to show us ugly things. He’s not trying to scare us but rather, to show us some part of ourselves we hadn’t seen before. When Catherine pays a visit, James gets turned on by her robotic description of the accident. They have sex in his hospital bed and it’s hard to make of the scene. Once again, Cronenberg hews to a dreamlike style, making easy interpretation nearly impossible.

During his recovery, James meets Helen (Holly Hunter), the wife of the deceased man. She was also in the crash, and the crash triggered the same fetish in her. Helen and James are unspeakably attracted to one another and after experiencing yet another, possibly deliberate, car accident, they begin an affair. Their sex scenes are too scientific to be pornographic. Helen and James are clearly possessed by a need to repeat their pain, making a provocative point about how human beings process trauma.

The film’s most memorable scene is a re-enactment of James Dean’s fatal car crash. It’s staged by Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a car accident fetishist with nasty facial scars. His prophesies are delusional (“The car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event”) but he has a magnetic quality that Helen and James can’t resist. They follow him home and meet his partner Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), another fetishist who keeps a stash of rolled cigarettes in her leg brace.

Whether it’s cars in Crash, computers in eXistenZ or television in Videodrome, technology in Cronenberg’s films is a grotesque, living thing. James, Helen and Vaughan are drawn to cars like a long-lost limb, turning the car into an extension of their own body. The film’s portrayal of gender and sexuality is also radical. The characters in Crash switch partners without paying any mind to societal expectation.

In 1996, Ted Turner initially refused to release the film. With its protracted sex scenes and icky moral implications, it’s easy to see why. Cronenberg makes no attempt to excuse his character’s behavior. They are automatons, pursuing extreme sensations in a strange, sometimes repetitive journey. Rather than fit James, Helen or Catherine to a preexisting mold of redemption or self-discovery, Cronenberg allows them to remain human. Like carnal embodiments of the death drive, their desires are contradictory. There is no happy ending.

Crash is not a pleasant film to watch but once it’s over, you may find yourself returning to it, like some trauma you are bound to repeat. The film defies rational understanding, and maybe it always will.

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