We’re Almost There: Thandiwe Newton in ‘Crash’ – Blog


by Claudio Alves

Happy belated birthday to Thandiwe Newton, who turned 50 last Sunday. Of Flirt (1991) at God’s country (2022), the British actress has impressed in a variety of genres and roles, from prestige melodrama to pulpy sci-fi. There’s enormous flexibility in his screen presence, a huge range showcased even in projects that never quite reach his level. Such is the case of Accident, winner of best picture by Paul Haggis, where Newton is but a common thread in a vast tapestry of delicate racial dynamics, each scenario intertwining with ten others. Hyperlink cinema was all the rage in the 2000s, and this particular example surely propelled Newton closer to Oscar contention than she had been before or since.

Although it’s not fun to look back Accident, we should not let the general horror of the image bleed into the memory of Newton’s work. She is a beacon of quality, shining brightly amid offensive generalizations that turn into judgmental incompetence…

Newton’s Christine is introduced in one of the film’s most uncomfortable scenes, a sexual assault in which a racist cop takes out his anger on an unsuspecting victim. Sergeant John Ryan (Matt Dillon) is bigoted, weary and vengeful, thanks to a recent phone call with his father’s insurance adjuster. In other words, he is looking for someone to punish. He jumps at the first opportunity to wave his state-sanctioned authority as a weapon of retaliation. That luck quickly manifests when an expensive SUV drives by, much like the one that was just reported stolen to the Los Angeles District Attorney in a carjacking incident.

This is not the same car and the license plates don’t match, Agent Ryan’s partner immediately points out. For the irate cop, however, the facts don’t matter when he’s looking for someone to hurt. That someone is Christine, who was just spotted performing oral sex on her husband, Cameron (Terrence Howard), while he was driving. Police lights catch him in the actand yet, against all reason, the television director and his wife initially seem indifferent to the situation, still descending from their common euphoria, all in naughty smiles and complicit giggles.

Newton is the first to hint at the growing tension in the scene, her hard, almost defiant gaze as she stares at Ryan. Seeds of outrage are planted, defiance springs from the ground and blossoms in a show of anger. Cameron mentions that his wife had a few drinks, trying to appease the officer and defend the woman whose face suggests little inebriation.

Newton doesn’t play the lingering effects of a few too many drinks. Instead, she puts forward the temper of someone overwhelmed with outrage at her unfair treatment. The rapidity of his mood change hints at a knowledge of where this is, of the traumatic horror to come. Fury mingles with fear, true terror as Ryan rapes her. In an interview with Vulture, Newton talked about the filming of Accident and how she didn’t quite realize, not until the day of shooting, that the cop’s actions would become so intrusive. Also, as it was one of the last scenes she filmed, the gravity of the situation did not inform the character’s next arc.

On first reading, the script’s ambiguity led her to believe that later confrontations between husband and wife were tinged with irony, the exaggeration used as a weapon in Cameron and Christine’s marital strife. Looking back, the actress said she couldn’t even speak after going through such an ordeal. This disconnect between the actress and what ended on screen clouds the performance, explaining some of its more inauthentic details. However, there is a lucid honesty in Newton’s handling of the first scene that somewhat compensates.

As Sergeant Ryan’s hands stray where they should never have strayed, Christine surprisingly stops. Sure, there’s a flash of disdain for her helpless husband, but the main idea that emerges is one of shocked oblivion. His whole body goes blank, his eyes go dark, until only a ghost remains on the screen. But of course, none of that is there when the pair are back home, bringing Haggis’ horrific script to life with all the enthusiasm of two comedians spouting Ibsen on stage.

Newton isn’t holding back, every inch of her is powered by a nervous electric current looking for an outlet so he can explode. It is as if we are seeing the culmination of years of disputes, a growing mountain of old resentments. This mountain turns into an avalanche, swallowing up the arguing duo. One of Newton’s best qualities as a performer has always been his ability to portray mercuriality on screen, and scenes like this heated argument make that clear.

Later, we witness a morning full of regret and remorse, battered pride subsumed as Christine attempts to connect with Cameron through her pain. The dialogue is awful and singularly dependent on the balancing energies of the actors. On one side we have the undemonstrative stoicism of Terence Howard, a closed wall of imploding shame. Newton, on the other hand, explodes with excessive emotion, gestures of apology turning to tears, recriminations spewing in all directions. Christine’s last big moment is also Accidentthe most famous scene from, a fiery car accident that finds her at the mercy of the violent cop for the second time.

However, the situation is quite different, the character’s intentions altered by a new context in which Sergeant Ryan, for once, tries to save a citizen. For her part, Christine is helpless and panicked, trapped by a damaged vehicle and in the presence of the racist monster. Between convulsive sobs and the possibility of being burned alive, Newton articulates a veritable rhapsody of contradictory feelings. There is the relief of being helped underlined by the realization of who saved her, a cold recognition of the endless pain. The film’s construction posits the shared gaze between Christine and Ryan as a connection point, opening up the possibility for the cop’s redemption arc.

This reading, however, depends on the ethereal writing and score, rather than Newton’s ambiguous gaze. In the end, the actress maintains her authority over the character, denying the camera an easy resolution to her story. She’s too pretty for the picture, anyway.

Thanks to her performance as Christine, Newton was nominated for several awards, both as part of the ensemble cast and in the supporting actress categories. Indeed, she won the BAFTA and remains the last woman to win this award without earning an AMPAS nomination. However Accident won Best Picture at the Oscars, its only acting nomination went to Matt Dillon. As for the Best Supporting Actress race, the Academy picked Amy Adams in JunebugCatherine Keener in HoodFrances McDormand in Northern countryRachel Weisz in The Constant Gardenerand Michelle Williams in Brokeback Mountain. Weisz won the award, while Thandiwe Newton remains unnominated.

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