Writer/director Paul Haggis (with a screenplay assist from Bobby Moresco) has constructed a fascinating treatise on racism, greed and double standards that has something to say to everyone (except compulsive denialists who will recognize their friends but not themselves). Set in an unusually chilly LA in the Christmas (er, Holiday!) season, the film uses a six-degrees-of-separation conceit to draw together law enforcers (Don Cheadle/Detective Graham Waters, Matt Dillon/Sergeant Jack Ryan, Ryan Phillippe/Officer Tommy Hanson), prosecutors (Brendan Fraser/D.A. Rick Cabot, William Fichtner/Jake Flanagan), criminals (current: Ludacris/Anthony, Larenz Tate/Peter Waters; reformed: Michael Peña/Daniel) and their families (Sandra Bullock/Jean Cabot, Jennifer Esposito/Ria, Thandie Newton/Christine Thayer). Also in the lineup are representatives from the for-profit health-care system (Loretta Divine/Shaniqua Johnson—a hoot at every turn) and the movie industry (Terrence Howard/Cameron Thayer).
The result is, at times, too preachy (Anthony, the gangster with a mouth becomes tiresome even in his conversion from ruthless hood to illegal immigrant liberator) or downright contrived: baby-face Hanson ditches his eagerly racist, cop-a-feel-of-innocent-women partner (Ryan, who savours his lechery and spews his venom with conviction) only to jump to his own conclusion and dispatch permanent justice even as St. Christopher gazes silently at the act.
Elsewhere, presumed Arab (read terrorist) but Persian (and a U.S. citizen) shopkeeper, Farhad (Shaun Toub), opts to buy a gun to protect his property from his fellow Americans, but, first, must call in a locksmith to secure his commercial portal. Cue ex-con Waters, who has just redone the Cabot’s digs. They were upping their personal security after Anthony and best bud Peter Waters (Detective Waters’ younger brother, of course) had stolen their SUV. But the thugs are having a rough night—while pontificating, Anthony runs over a “Chinaman” and irredeemably “DNAs” the vehicle, reducing its black market resale value to zilch. For his part, Daniel changes the gun-toting citizen’s lock but recommends a new door to finish the job. Toub assumes kick-back gouging and vents his own spleen on the hapless repairman.
OK. With a tableau as rich as that, the film leaves no social ill or injustice unturned: the Thayer’s are pulled over during a harmless blow job, but “bargain” their way out of the publicity that a charge would certainly bring. Personal humiliation seems a small price to pay. Detective Waters is offered a promotion and a quashed warrant for his brother if only he would look the other way for his fellow officer and “brother” who was killed by a fellow cop in the line of drug dealing. Ryan’s harsh exterior nearly disappears as we see his bowel-infected father struggle to pee. The ensuing confrontation with his health “provider” rings true with anyone who has ever discovered just what the system doesn’t cover.
Haggis and savvy editor Hughes Winborne manage to pull all of these threads together, weaving an engaging look at the abhorrent state of racism and willful ignorance in our major cities (er, hello there Toronto with the recent murder of an innocent teenager while shopping on Boxing Day). But, truly, words fail them.
The finest scene—unforgettable in its twisted horror and scent of the captive succumbing to her kidnapper for love and protection—occurs when Mrs. Thayer is near death and only her worst nightmare, who courageously drags himself into life-threatening risk, can save them both. Near-wordlessly, Newton and Dillon lift the film into an emotional stratosphere that is occasionally approached but never reached again.
The final frames of white snow drifting down to the awful darkness of night (the soundless complement to Shani’s “El Llamar de Pasion, (The Call of Passion) ” which hauntingly makes the transitions and montages more telling), brilliantly reinforces the notion that colour means little, when our minds are predominantly grey. JWR