Reportedly, David Cronenberg hadn’t read any J. G. Ballard until a journalist sent him a copy of Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash at some point during the late ’80s, the critic was adamant that Cronenberg was the man to make the film adaptation. I don’t quite buy that, given how clear the influence of Ballard has been on Cronenberg’s work from the get-go, but maybe it was an indirect link via William S. Burroughs, who was friendly with and an influence on Ballard. Cronenberg has contradicted himself, saying in a 2019 interview that is was the producer Jeremy Thomas who sent him the novel. Thomas was a great fan of Ballard’s novels, and had already worked on an adaptation of High-Rise, which wouldn’t be made until 2015 by Ben Wheatley. Thomas is one of the rare producers who simply makes films he wants to see, and which are generally very auteur-driven. Cronenberg and Thomas had previously collaborated on an adaptation of Burrough’s Naked Lunch.
Ballard was supportive from the beginning (and was very happy with all adaptations of his work during his lifetime), and actually suggested the change of locale from Shepperton, just outside of London, to an unnamed North American city. The location of the film is ambiguous: it could be L.A., although as usual with Cronenberg’s films, it was shot in his hometown of Toronto, Canada. It was a prophetic choice by Ballard, because it’s set five minutes into the future and is concerned with the dulling effect of technology on relationships and futuristic forms of sexuality, plus the car culture is simply far more prevalent in North America. It also made sense to change the location for simply commercial reasons. Ballard is on record as saying “The movie is actually better than the book. It goes further than the book, and is much more powerful and dynamic. It’s terrific.” I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s brilliant adaptation of an unfilmable book.
James Spader plays James Ballard (see what J. G. did there?) who is a film producer, and is in an open relationship with his wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger). They can only get aroused when discussing their liaisons with others. Ballard soon starts an affair with Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) who was in a car crash with Ballard: the crash killed her husband. She soon introduces him to the strange world of Vaughan (Elias Koteas), who stages famous car crashes (James Dean / Jayne Mansfield). He is something of a cult-leader figure who is followed by damaged people who are all car crash victims. These people get off sexually through car crashes, but also through photographs (often taken by Vaughan) of these crashes. It’s a mutated combo of araphilia and autassassinophilia.
For the most part, the adaptation is fairly faithful, although the whole subplot of main character Vaughan’s ultimate fantasy of killing Elizabeth Taylor in car crash has been axed from the film. The ending is also somewhat changed, and the sex scene in the book between Ballard and Vaughn is LSD-induced, which was very of its time in 1973. Cronenberg has dealt with the connection between technology, violence and sexuality often in his work, maybe most famously in Videodrome, and he directs Crash in his typically clinical style. There is sometimes deliberately flat acting from the cast, which is very much in tune with Ballard’s medical prose style.
Crash may be my favourite of Cronenberg’s films, because it’s one of the most impactful (pun intended). It feels much like a combination of the “body horror” films he made his name on before he went into other kinds of films, although Existenz was his final movie in that genre. Peter Suschitzky, who has been Cronenberg’s DP since Dead Ringers, does some of his best work here, and the visuals capture what Ballard describes on the page. The score by Howard Shore is completely hypnotic, and may be my favourite score of his.
The cast Cronenberg compiled for Crash is completely fearless, as you would have to be with the material. James Spader, who is no stranger to playing a perv, still had a slightly boyish charm, but even back in his John Hughes teen stuff you could tell that there was something deeper lurking inside. Spader also totally killed his leading man career with this film, it was his follow-up to Stargate (one of his biggest commercial successes) but he was one of the few leading men in Hollywood who wasn’t scared of the content, including the gay sex scene. He never quite got back in the big leagues, being regulated to indie films, supporting roles in big films, but most notably lead roles in the network television shows Boston Legal and The Blacklist.
Holly Hunter gives also perhaps her greatest performance. She has this very likeable quality as an actress, which pulls the viewer in as much as that’s possible with this set of characters. Cronenberg had tried to get Elias Koteas for Naked Lunch (I think for the role of Kiki, but turned him down). He was a natural choice for Cronenberg, mainly just for the fact he is one of Canada’s best character actors. According to Cronenberg, Koteas was scared of this role (something Spader was not) but he got into the strange sexuality of the character, and also gives a career-best performance. Deborah Kara Unger, who was big for a hot second, is in her breakthrough role here, which is still her most memorable. Rosanna Arquette is also wonderful in the film.
The cult of Crash has grown over the years, and until now it was one of the most requested Blu-Rays upgrades. It’s a film about people who want to connect in the modern world, and the interactions and transactions people have with one another, or strive to, as well as the fusion of technology with the body, something Cronenberg has dealt with before. It still has the power to shock (even with the technology being dated), but not in the way the right-wing media tried to claim, especially in the UK tabloids. Cronenberg did claim at the Cannes film festival that Francis Ford Coppola was so disgusted by the film that he would not hand Cronenberg the Special Jury Prize.
Arrow Video has pulled out the works with this long-awaited Blu-Ray. The disc is stacked with newly commissioned extras, such as audio commentary with film scholar Adrian Martin and new interviews with Peter Suschitzk, Jeremy Thomas, Howard Shore and casting director Deirdre Bowen. The other newly commissioned extra is a video essay by Caelum Vatnsdal on Cronenberg’s use of architecture and location. The archival extras are the most interesting, including a 2019 Q&A with Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen about the film, a 142-minute Q&A with Cronenberg and Ballard at the height of the controversy in 1996, vintage short interviews and a making-of featurette.
It even includes short films. including Crash! (which Ballard appears in); Nightmare Angel, which was an unofficial short adaption of Ballard’s novel from filmmaker Zoe Beloff in 1986; and an extremely awful and pretentious short Always (crashing) by Simon Barker and Jason Wood. Nightmare Angel is a impressive piece of work which distills the novel into 30 minutes and is fairly faithful even includes the Liz Taylor subplot, it’s a serious rediscovery for Ballard buffs. Two shorts from Cronenberg are included, and the trailers for the film complete the on-disc extras.
The booklet features new writing by Vanessa Morgan, Araceli Molina, Jason Wood and Zoe Beloff, and a reprinted excerpt from Cronenberg on Cronenberg. A double-sized poster with newly commissioned artwork finishes off the package.