Chopped up and linked together in daisy chain fashion, Crash tells the story of people from wildly disparate walks of life as they collide and intersect with one another. Each life is in some way personally affected, changed, damaged, or victimized by racism. They’re also all in some way guilty of racism themselves. There is no one without spot here, and just when you think you’ve got a character nailed down first time director and screenwriter Paul Haggis peels back another layer to reveal something else entirely underneath. A racist cop molests a black couple, only later to risk his life to save a black woman; an honest cop protects a black man from discrimination only to later discriminate against someone himself. There are no easy answers in Crash and though sometimes the characters rise above their baser fears and intolerance, no one leaves the film unscathed.

The result is a movie both intense and thought provoking. Though we only see the characters in brief snippets, Haggis has chosen all the right snippets. Each tells volumes about the characters involved and we quickly become acquainted with and invested in them. Where the film takes them is completely unpredictable, not because of any tendency to throw in artificial twists, but because this is a film about people so real that none of the usual Hollywood cliché rules apply.

The dialogue is blistering and full of weight as characters discuss heavy topics like race, poverty, and the American institution. It doesn’t play like a Kevin Smith movie, where the protagonists step down to have a conversation, but rather mingles in with what’s going on around these people to feel natural, even necessary. Two young black men carjack a well dressed white couple and discuss racism around them. A Hispanic man struggles to find safety for his young family, a Persian immigrant turned US citizen buys a gun to protect his frequently robbed store, a white DA plays the race card to win elections. The conversations each group of characters and indeed the characters themselves connect through coincidence, feeding one into another, crashing into each other’s lives.

In the midst of all this these people say exactly what’s on their mind. Missing is the filter we all put in front of ourselves to hide what others might find offending. Haggis’ script is so direct and so full of life that the film turns what you expect quite literally upside down. It’s the sort of film you wish you could force everyone to see, it leaves you with the perhaps painfully naïve conviction that if only enough people saw it, then the world might be a better place to live in. Crash paints a picture not of black and whites, but foggy grays and rips apart the racial barriers thrown between us. Ok, maybe it’s not going to cure all the world’s ills, but it may help you understand a little better where the other guy is coming from. It’s rare to find anything in the theater this deeply affecting. It may even prompt you to hug the guy sitting next to you. Haggis, who already won an Oscar for his Million Dollar Baby screenplay, has turned in a stunning directorial debut and may one day end up winning again as a director if this is any indication.