Crash (1996 film)

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Theatrical release poster
Directed byDavid Cronenberg
Screenplay byDavid Cronenberg
Based onCrash
by J. G. Ballard
Produced byDavid Cronenberg
CinematographyPeter Suschitzky
Edited byRonald Sanders
Music byHoward Shore
Distributed byAlliance Communications
Release dates
  • May 17, 1996 (1996-05-17) (Cannes)
  • October 4, 1996 (1996-10-04) (Canada)
Running time
100 minutes[2]
Box office$23.2 million[4]

Crash is a 1996 Canadian drama film written, produced and directed by David Cronenberg, based on J. G. Ballard's 1973 novel of the same name. Starring James Spader, Deborah Kara Unger, Elias Koteas, Holly Hunter and Rosanna Arquette, it follows a film producer who, after surviving a car crash, becomes involved with a group of symphorophiliacs who are aroused by car crashes and tries to rekindle his sexual relationship with his wife.

The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it received the Special Jury Prize, a unique award that is distinct from the Jury Prize as it is not given annually, but only at the request of the official jury (for example, the previous year, both a Jury Prize and a Special Jury Prize were awarded). When then-jury president Francis Ford Coppola announced the award "for originality, for daring and for audacity", he stated that it had been a controversial choice and that certain jury members "did abstain very passionately".[5] It continued to receive various accolades, including six Genie Awards.

The film's initial release was met with intense controversy and opened to highly divergent reactions from critics; some praised the film for its daring premise and originality, others aimed criticism for having such a strange premise filled with graphic violence. It has since developed a cult following.


Film producer James Ballard and his detached wife Catherine are in an open marriage. The couple engage in various trysts but, between them, have unenthusiastic sex. Their arousal is heightened by discussing the intimate details of their extramarital sex. She recounts sex that day with a stranger in a prop plane hangar. She was, however, left unsatisfied. When James replies he did not achieve satisfaction during his sexual encounter with one of his coworkers as one of the film crew interrupted them, Catherine replies, "maybe the next one".

While driving home from work late one night, James' car collides head-on with another, killing its male passenger. While trapped in the fused wreckage, Dr. Helen Remington, the driver and the dead passenger's wife, exposes a breast to James when she pulls off the shoulder harness of her seat belt.

While recovering, James meets Helen again, as well as a man named Dr. Robert Vaughan, who takes a keen interest in the brace holding James's shattered leg together and photographs it. While leaving the hospital, Helen and James begin an affair, one primarily fueled by their shared experience of the car crash. Attempting to understand why they are so aroused by their car wreck, they go to witness one of Vaughan's cult meetings/performance pieces, during which he thoroughly re-creates the car crash that killed James Dean with authentic cars and stunt drivers. When the Department of Transport officials break up the event, James flees with Helen and Vaughan.

James soon becomes one of Vaughan's followers who fetishize car crashes, obsessively watching car safety test videos, photographing traffic collisions, and recounting the deaths of famous people in road accidents. Catherine, whom Vaughan has followed in his car on several occasions, begins to fantasize about him and James having sex. Although Vaughan initially claims that he is interested in the "reshaping of the human body by modern technology", his actual project is living out the philosophy that the car crash is a "benevolent psychopathology that beckons towards us".

James drives Vaughan's Lincoln convertible around the city while Vaughan picks up and has sex with a prostitute in the back seat. A short time later, James invites Catherine on one of his and Vaughan's drives. On an interstate, they come across a car wreck involving Colin Seagrave, a member of the group, who had been planning to authentically recreate the car accident that killed Jayne Mansfield with Vaughan. Amongst the wreckage, the three see Colin's bloodied corpse, wearing a dress and a blonde wig to accurately resemble Mansfield. Vaughan photographs the wreck as they pass by. Afterward, when police search Vaughan's convertible regarding a pedestrian hit-and-run, James drives it through a car wash while Vaughan and Catherine have sex in the back seat.

James subsequently has another dalliance with Gabrielle, another of the group members whose legs are clad in restrictive steel braces and who has a vulva-like scar on the back of one of her thighs, an injury suffered in a crash. He tears her fishnet stockings open and penetrates her through the scar. Later, Vaughan invites James to visit a tattooist who tattoos car emblems on Vaughan's body. Afterward, James and Vaughan, both highly aroused, have anal sex in Vaughan's car.

When Vaughan rams his car into Catherine's while it is unattended, he and James aggressively pursue each other. On an overpass, Vaughan intentionally crashes his car, landing on a passenger bus below, killing himself. After Vaughan's death, Gabrielle and Helen visit a junkyard, and affectionally embrace while lying in the wreck of Vaughan's car.

Later, James and Catherine perform a similar stunt, with James pursuing her on a freeway at a high speed. Catherine unbuckles her seatbelt as she sees James approaching, and he rams into the back of her car, forcing it to topple down into a grass median. James exits his car and approaches Catherine's, which has flipped upside down. Catherine lies partly under the car, apparently superficially injured. When James asks if she is okay, she tells him she is not hurt. As the couple kiss and begin to have sex near the wrecked vehicle, James whispers to her, "maybe the next one", implying that the only possible apotheosis of their extreme fetish is death.



David Cronenberg had not read any of J. G. Ballard's works and first heard of the novel Crash in the 1980s from a critic that stated that he should adapt it into a film. Jeremy Thomas, who later produced Naked Lunch, spoke to Cronenberg about the book and that he should read it. Cronenberg was only able to read half of the book as he found it disturbing and said he could not make it into a film. However, he later finished the book and re-read it stating "it was obviously an extraordinary book" although "it's not a likeable book".[6] Cronenberg stated that his agent at Creative Artists Agency told him the film would end his career.[7]

Cronenberg wrote the script without having read any of Ballard's works except Crash and some interviews. Cronenberg's script was mostly faithful to the book, but the ending scene was created by him and he removed some scenes from the book during filming.[8] Attempts were made to add a voice-over in the film, but Cronenberg rejected it later stating "I mean, do you want someone to read from the novel?" and that "he somehow felt that you could explain the movie so people would get it".[9] The location was changed from London in the book to Toronto in the film.[10]

The shooting script for the film was purposely kept short at 77 pages due to budgetary constraints and Cronenberg wanting to "shoot slow, with a lot of attention to detail" and to "focus microscopically" on the shorter script. Cronenberg wanted to do a smaller-budgeted film compared to his recent films. The reduced budget forced Howard Shore to compose the film in Toronto, rather than London, for the first time since Videodrome.[11] Cronenberg was concerned that Peter Suschitzky would be unable to perform the cinematography for the film due to his commitments to Mars Attacks!.[12]

The pile-up scene was inspired by Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend.[13]

The film was an international co-production between the British company Recorded Picture Company, and Canadian companies Alliance Communications Corporation, The Movie Network, and Telefilm Canada.[14]


For Cronenberg, technology, including the production of automobiles, is the product of the human mind and a kind of natural extension of the human body.[15] He revisits his favorite subject, how modern technology affects people and their sex life, in Crash.[16] He noted that a moment has come in the history of mankind when sex-free artificial reproduction of the species became available: "We could literally put a moratorium on sex for 100 years and we still would not extinguish the human race." The director wonders what the place of sex is in these new conditions.[15]

The novel depicts the world of mankind so alienated and jaded that communication and emotions are possible only through traumatic experiences, such as a car accident.[17] In the fantasy, semi-abstract world of Ballard and Cronenberg, the vectors of thanatos and eros coincide in a single act of intercourse through man-made technology. Jonathan Rosenbaum notes that in the film, human skin is likened to the glitzy, fetishized surface of cars; the camera slides seamlessly from one to the other.[18] The "chosen ones", a secret society that reads like a fight club in Palahniuk's novel, perceive vehicles and accidents as a fetish.[19]



Two 4K restorations were released in 2020 by Arrow Films and The Criterion Collection.[20][21][22][23]


The film was controversial, as was the book, because of its vivid depictions of graphic sexual acts instigated by violence.

At the Cannes Film Festival, a screening provoked boos and angry bolts by upset viewers.[24] In a 2020 interview, Cronenberg stated that he believed Francis Ford Coppola, the jury president at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, was so vehemently opposed to Crash that other jury members in favor of the film banded together to present Cronenberg with a rare Special Jury Prize.[25] So great was Coppola's distaste for the film that, according to Cronenberg, Coppola refused to personally present the award to the director.[25]

The controversial subject matter prompted The Daily Mail and The Evening Standard to orchestrate an aggressive campaign to ban Crash in the United Kingdom. In response to this outcry, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) inquired with a Queen's Counsel and a psychologist, none of whom found any justification to ban it, and 11 disabled people, who saw no offense with its portrayal of the physically challenged. Seeing no evidence for a ban, Crash was passed by the BBFC uncut with an 18 rating in March 1997.[26]

A theater manager in Oslo, Norway, banned the film at her location. She denied it was related to a traffic accident that left her husband paralysed.[24]

Media mogul Ted Turner, whose company oversaw U.S. distributor Fine Line Features, refused to release the film in the United States, going so far as to pull it from an October 1996 release date intended to coincide with the Canadian rollout. Cronenberg would later confirm that a Fine Line executive shared the rumor that Turner's distaste for the movie was the reason for its delay. He said Turner was morally offended and concerned about "copycat incidents".[27] The film eventually received a U.S. release in Spring 1997.

AMC Entertainment Inc., the second-largest U.S. theater chain at the time, said it was posting security guards outside about 30 screens showing the movie to ensure minors did not get inside. At AMC's Century City location in Los Angeles, two security guards were present, one inside the auditorium and one outside.[28]

The film was still banned by Westminster Council, meaning it could not be shown in any cinema in the West End, even though they had earlier given special permission for the film's premiere, and it was easily seen in nearby Camden.[29] In the United States, the film was released in both NC-17 and R versions. In Australia, a cut version rated R18+ was given a limited release; it was later released uncut on VHS in early 1997, and then on DVD in 2003. The American NC-17 version was advertised with the tagline "The most controversial film in years".

An academic study of the controversy and audience responses to it, written by Martin Barker, Jane Arthurs and Ramaswami Harindranath, was published by Wallflower Press in 2001, entitled The Crash Controversy: Censorship Campaigns and Film Reception.[30]

Critical reception[edit]

On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 65% based on 62 reviews, with an average score of 6.8/10. The consensus reads: "Despite the surprisingly distant, clinical direction, Crash's explicit premise and sex is classic Cronenberg territory."[31] On Metacritic, the film's score is listed as 53 out of 100, as determined by 23 critics, signifying "mixed or average reviews".[32]

In his contemporary review, Roger Ebert gave the film 3.5 out of 4 stars, writing:

"Crash" is about characters entranced by a sexual fetish that, in fact, no one has. Cronenberg has made a movie that is pornographic in form, but not in result ... [Crash is] like a porno movie made by a computer: It downloads gigabytes of information about sex, it discovers our love affair with cars, and it combines them in a mistaken algorithm. The result is challenging, courageous and original—a dissection of the mechanics of pornography. I admired it, although I cannot say I "liked" it.[33]

J. Hoberman praised the film highly, noting the melancholy overtones and unconventional dry humor that includes cars mimicking human sexual activity or vice versa (for instance, "a close-up of an automatic car window slowly rising, the running-gag equation of tailgating and rear-entry intercourse").[34] BBC film critic Mark Kermode has described Crash as "pretty much perfect" and praised Howard Shore's score, while admitting that it's a "hard film to like" and describing the cast's performances as "glacial".[35]

In 2000, a poll done by The Village Voice of film critics listed Crash as the 35th Best Film of the 1990s.[36] A similar poll done by Cahiers du cinéma placed it 8th.[37] In 2005 the staff of Total Film listed it at #21 on their list of the all-time greatest films.[38] Slant Magazine selected it as one of their "100 Essential Films".[39]

In 2002, Parveen Adams, an academic who specializes in art/film/performance and psychoanalysis, argued that the flat texture of the film, achieved through various cinematic devices, prevent the viewer from identifying with the characters in the way one might with a more mainstream film. Instead of vicariously enjoying the sex and injury, the viewer finds himself a disimpassioned voyeur. Adams additionally noted that the scars borne by the characters are old and bloodless—in other words, the wounds lack vitality. The wound is "not traumatizing" but, rather, "a condition of our psychical and social life".[40]

In a 1996 interview with the Vancouver Sun, Cronenberg said Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci told him "the film was a religious masterpiece."[24] On At the Movies with Roger Ebert, director Martin Scorsese ranked Crash as the eighth best film of the decade.[41]

Of the adaptation, author J. G. Ballard reportedly said, "The movie is actually better than the book. It goes further than the book, and is much more powerful and dynamic. It's terrific."[42] He promoted Cronenberg's work in his native country.[43]

Awards and nominations[edit]

The film was nominated for the Golden Palm at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival. In the end, it won the Special Jury Prize.[44] Cannes jury president Francis Ford Coppola noted that "certain (jury) members did abstain very passionately" from endorsing Cronenberg's film, but added that it was important to give Crash an award, "even though in mining some truth of the human condition it offended (certain viewers)".[45] However, other accounts have suggested it was Coppola himself who didn't like the film, with producer Jeremy Thomas later saying, "It touched a nerve with him."[46] In a 2020 interview for the film's 4K restoration, Cronenberg said Coppola was the main dissent on the support for the film on the Cannes jury, adding that "he wouldn't hand me the award" and got someone else to do it.[47]

The film received six Genie Awards from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, including awards for Cronenberg as director and screenwriter; the film was also nominated in two further categories, including Best Picture.[48]

At the 1997 Stinkers Bad Movie Awards, the film was filed under the Founders Award, which lamented the year's biggest studio disgraces, and stated, "How Oscar winner Holly Hunter and the usually reliable James Spader and Rosanna Arquette got suckered into this mess is a mystery."[49]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Crash (1996)". British Film Institute. Archived from the original on March 22, 2016. Retrieved May 6, 2023.
  2. ^ "Crash (18)". British Board of Film Classification. March 18, 1997. Archived from the original on April 6, 2015. Retrieved March 2, 2013.
  3. ^ Dick, Leslie (June 1997). "Crash". Sight & Sound. p. 48.
  4. ^ "Crash (1996)". JPBox-Office. Archived from the original on February 16, 2018. Retrieved February 15, 2018.
  5. ^ Maslin, Janet (May 21, 1996). "'Secrets and Lies' Wins the Top Prize at Cannes". The New York Times. p. C-11. Archived from the original on July 17, 2020. Retrieved August 4, 2020.
  6. ^ Cronenberg 2006, p. 138.
  7. ^ Rodley 1997, p. 191.
  8. ^ Cronenberg 2006, p. 139.
  9. ^ Cronenberg 2006, p. 142.
  10. ^ Rodley 1997, p. 189.
  11. ^ Rodley 1997, p. 191-192.
  12. ^ Cronenberg 2006, p. 178.
  13. ^ Cronenberg 2006, p. 146.
  14. ^ Magistrale, Tony (2003). Hollywood's Stephen King. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 219. ISBN 1403980519. Archived from the original on January 22, 2023. Retrieved August 4, 2020 – via GoogleBooks.
  15. ^ a b "NEW SEXUAL ORGANS by Andy Spletzer—Seattle Film". The Stranger. Archived from the original on October 19, 2019. Retrieved April 16, 2011.
  16. ^ "Film Threat—The Mixing Of Blood: An Interview With David Cronenberg". Archived from the original on January 24, 2012. Retrieved April 16, 2011.
  17. ^ "Jean Baudrillard- Two Essays («Simulacra and Science Fiction» and «Ballard's Crash»)". DePauw University. Archived from the original on June 8, 2007. Retrieved April 16, 2011.
  18. ^ " Blog Archive " Sex Drive [on CRASH]- Archived 2012-01-31 at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^ Comparison of films by D. Cronenberg and D. Fincher, published in the late 1990s, see, in particular, the book: Mark Browning. David Fincher: Films That Scar. ISBN 978-0-313-37772-3. Page 143.
  20. ^ "Crash – 4K Ultra HD". Arrow Films UK. Retrieved February 17, 2023.
  21. ^ Bat (September 27, 2020). "David Cronenberg's CRASH To Receive 4K UHD Blu-Ray Release from Arrow Video". Horror Cult Films. Retrieved February 17, 2023.
  22. ^ "Crash". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved February 17, 2023.
  23. ^ Bowen, Chuck (December 23, 2020). "Blu-ray Review: David Cronenberg's Crash on the Criterion Collection". Slant Magazine. Retrieved February 17, 2023.
  24. ^ a b c Powell, Betsy (October 3, 1996). "Head-on crash with controversy: David Cronenberg's Crash is arguably the most provocative film ever to come out of Canada". Vancouver Sun.
  25. ^ a b "Q-and-A: David Cronenberg reflects on 'Crash' and the future of COVID filmmaking". The Canadian Press via Yahoo News. Archived from the original on August 20, 2020. Retrieved August 18, 2020.
  26. ^ "Crash | British Board of Film Classification". Archived from the original on October 28, 2017. Retrieved November 2, 2017.
  27. ^ Johnson, Brian D. (November 10, 1996). "WAITING FOR CRASH: Is Ted Turner playing film censor?". Maclean's.
  28. ^ "Security guards on patrol to stop minors from seeing Crash in U.S.". National Post. March 27, 1997. p. 6. Archived from the original on November 17, 2020. Retrieved August 4, 2020 – via
  29. ^ Case Study: Crash Archived August 11, 2010, at the Wayback Machine, Students' British Board of Film Classification page
  30. ^ Barker, Arthurs and Harindranath (2001). The Crash Controversy: Censorship Campaigns and Film Reception. Wallflower Press. ISBN 9781-9033-6415-4.
  31. ^ "Crash (1996)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Archived from the original on January 10, 2019. Retrieved May 24, 2022. Edit this at Wikidata
  32. ^ "Crash". Metacritic. Archived from the original on June 23, 2018. Retrieved September 12, 2017.
  33. ^ Ebert, Roger (March 21, 1997). "Crash (1997)". Archived from the original on August 5, 2020. Retrieved August 4, 2020.
  34. ^ "Crash — From the Current". The Criterion Collection. Archived from the original on August 24, 2011. Retrieved April 16, 2011.
  35. ^ Kermode, Mark (June 12, 2012). "Kermode Uncut: My Cronenberg Top Five". YouTube. Archived from the original on December 21, 2021. Retrieved February 8, 2017.
  36. ^ "Best Films of the Decade". Village Voice. Archived from the original on January 13, 2001. Retrieved August 4, 2020.
  37. ^ Cahiers du Cinema: Top Ten Lists 1951–2009 Archived March 27, 2012, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved on December 22, 2010.
  38. ^ "Total Film - GamesRadar+". Archived from the original on August 20, 2008. Retrieved July 25, 2008.
  39. ^ 100 Essential Films | Film Archived March 3, 2010, at the Wayback Machine. Slant Magazine. Retrieved on December 22, 2010.
  40. ^ Reviews: July 2002 Archived October 5, 2007, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved on December 22, 2010.
  41. ^ Ebert, Roger (February 26, 2000). "Ebert & Scorsese: Best Films of the 1990s". Archived from the original on August 28, 2018. Retrieved August 4, 2020.
  42. ^ Sterling, Bruce. "David Cronenberg mulling over J G Ballard's CRASH". Wired. Archived from the original on July 21, 2021. Retrieved August 18, 2020.
  43. ^ "JG Ballard on A History of Violence | Film". The Guardian. September 23, 2005. Archived from the original on January 31, 2010. Retrieved April 16, 2011.
  44. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Crash". Archived from the original on August 5, 2012. Retrieved September 15, 2009.
  45. ^ Macinnis, Craig (May 20, 1996). "Cronenberg gets special Cannes prize". Ottawa Citizen.
  46. ^ "Beyond the bounds of depravity: an oral history of David Cronenberg's Crash". British Film Institute. Archived from the original on July 12, 2020. Retrieved August 10, 2020.
  47. ^ Friend, David (August 12, 2020). "Q-and-A: David Cronenberg reflects on 'Crash' and the future of COVID filmmaking". Yahoo/The Canadian Press. Archived from the original on August 20, 2020.
  48. ^ Armstrong, Mary Ellen (December 2, 1996). "Crash, Lilies top Genies". Playback. Archived from the original on August 4, 2020. Retrieved August 4, 2020.
  49. ^ "1997's Biggest Studio Disgraces". The Stinkers. Archived from the original on October 10, 1999. Retrieved October 6, 2019.

Works cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Welsh, James M.; Tibbetts, John C., eds. (2005). The Encyclopedia of Novels Into Film (2nd ed.). Facts on File. pp. 78–80.

External links[edit]