Addiction is an industry.
Director and screenwriter Nicholas Jarecki, Arbitrage (2012), seeks to dramatize the opioid crisis in the USA with his new film Crisis using a similar formula to Steven Soderbergh’s seminal anti-drug film Traffic (2000). Unfortunately for Jarecki, instead of creating a tense and searing indictment of a palpable social and law enforcement issue, Crisis is an inert piece of drama that relies too heavily on cliché and unbelievable scenarios to be engaging.
Using a tripartite narrative structure, the film introduces three main characters who are each fighting the war on opioids from different angles. Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name (2017), plays Jake Kelly, an undercover DEA agent who is working to bring down a Canadian drug lord, code-named Mother (Guy Nadon). Evangeline Lilly, Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018), plays a single mother and recovering Oxycodone addict, Claire Reimann, whose son winds up murdered by the cartel run by Mother. Finally, Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour (2017), plays biologist and university professor Dr. Tyrone Brower who finds himself at odds with a pharmaceutical company when his testing of their new and supposedly non-addictive painkiller proves it to be just as dangerous, if not more so, than opioid painkillers currently on the market.
Beginning with a propulsive scene wherein the Royal Canadian Mounted Police track down and arrest a young man acting as a courier for Mother on the Canadian border, the film starts with the promise of being an action-heavy thriller but unfortunately soon reneges on that front and becomes a mixed bag of narratives that are sometimes successful in their execution, but more often are clumsy and weighted with a bizarre and didactic moral panic over opioids. Jake Kelly isn’t just an officer waging war on a drug cartel, he’s also the brother of opioid addict Emmie (Lily-Rose Depp). Whilst he is busy with subterfuge and setting up the ultimate sting operation, Emmie is in and out of rehab and probably headed to an early grave.
Lilly’s Claire, who begins the film at a Narcotics Anonymous group detailing her addiction and the lengths she went to get her fix, becomes an unlikely detective as she tries to hunt down those responsible for her son’s death. The police believe that he accidentally overdosed on Oxycodone, but after a closer examination by the coroner, it is shown that he has a head wound and was more likely to have been forced to take the drugs which caused the overdose. Claire becomes an avenging angel for her son, following leads that take her to Canada and right into the heart of Mother’s operation. The fact that a civilian with no police help and just the assistance of a low rent Private Investigator is able to find the head of a massive drug cartel stretches the plausibility of the plot to its very edges. However, it seems Jarecki isn’t particularly concerned with realism to make his point. Lilly’s performance as a grieving mother is one of her least glamorous roles, and she does portray Claire with considerable heart despite the turgid nature of the script she’s given to work with.
Perhaps the most successful aspect of the film is the narrative surrounding Dr. Tyrone Brower and his ethical responsibility to become a whistle-blower after his trials for a new pain killer reveal that the drug is extremely dangerous. At first, he is offered a significant bribe in the form of a large funding cheque from the pharmaceutical company that is about to send the drug to the FDA. When he turns that down and tries to report his findings to the FDA, he finds himself at the center of a historical sexual harassment scandal, and his tenure at the University is terminated. Put under pressure by both “Big Pharma” represented by company man Dr. Bill Simons (Luke Evans in what can only be considered as an extended cameo role) and the Dean of the department (Greg Kinnear) to hide his research; it is Brower’s uncompromising ethics that prove to be the most interesting subplot of the film. Jarecki makes no bones about comparing pharmaceutical companies to drug cartels — both exist for profit over people. It’s a strange false equivalency that reinforces that Jarecki sees no shades of grey in the war against opioids. The film is extraordinarily black and white in its moral compass, leaving no room for an argument that perhaps painkillers foremost exist for people in pain. Opioids, especially Oxycodone and Fentanyl, are portrayed as street drugs and the worst health crisis since tobacco. Whilst there is clearly a problem with opioids being misused, there is a strong current of moral panic that surrounds the narrative.
Ironically the least interesting aspect of the film is the law enforcement narrative. Jake Kelly spends most of his time as a gruff, tough man who is hampered in his efforts to take down the cartel by DEA red tape. Michelle Rodriguez, Avatar (2009), turns up as his superior to put the pressure on him to complete the bust because department resources are running out. Jarecki’s script here is focusing on the structural inability of the government to properly curb the widespread abuse of opioids. The scenes involving Kelly and his operation are tired and trite, lacking in suspense and tension. Yes, there is always the chance that Kelly’s cover will be blown, and he will be killed by the cartel or the random Armenians he’s doing business with on the US side of the border, but the stakes don’t seem particularly high, given that there is very little character development for Kelly. Armie Hammer is serviceable in the role but lacks depth. Perhaps because the film tries so hard to cover every aspect of the opioid crisis, from the personal to the political, it ends up not giving any room for the whole to form properly.
Crisis is essentially three films about one issue and, as such, is overstuffed. There could be a good film hiding in one of the narratives. A searing takedown of the pharmaceutical industry in the style of The Insider (1999) is lurking in the segments concerning Oldman’s character. A decent crime thriller lurks inside the parts belonging to Hammer’s character. However, taken as a whole, none of it seems to gel, and even with the considerable run time of nearly two hours, the film eventually doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and certainly, it doesn’t get there with any energy or engaging action. Clearly, there is a lot to be said about the opioid crisis (as the clumsy end titles reiterate) but trying to say it all with a relatively second-rate script and lackluster direction on Jarecki’s part leaves the film a sadly less than riveting experience.
2 / 5 – Average
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney