Sprawling drama takes on the horrors of the opioid industry

Writer/director Nicholas Jarecki’s mesmerizing anti-opioid film CRISIS is being marketed as a thriller, which it is, I suppose. Structurally, its triple-arc, multi-character, puzzle-box narrative behaves like many drug-centric thrillers that have come before it (Steven Soderbergh’s TRAFFIC being the obvious comparison) and certainly, it occasionally has some of the dizzying flash of a Scorsese film as it zips around explaining the mechanics of an international narcotics operation, complete with narrated expository sequences slathered in The Rolling Stones. But really, at its core, CRISIS is a kind of horror movie; a human tragedy where the monster is not the drug itself (as in something like, say, Darren Aronofsky’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, where the smack was the villain) but a kind of banal, socio-economical bottom line; one exploited by fringe-dwelling hustlers, status-quo intellects and corporate kingpins alike. And while CRISIS shines lights on the grafters and amoral parasites who push these pills around, its focus is mainly on the victims of their trade, who sell their souls and who are often duped into doing so while trustingly filling a prescription.

Armie Hammer (THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.) stars as Jack Kelly, a dangerously deep undercover DEA agent posing as the middle man for a Canadian/Armenian opioid drug cabal that has wound its way into America and who lives in constant fear of his ruthless associates discovering his true identity. Meanwhile, in Detroit, straight-laced professor Dr. Tyrone Brower (Gary Oldman, late of MANK) slowly begins to realize that a supposedly safe painkiller his University has helped develop is anything but. And elsewhere at the same time, architect Claire Reimann (Evangeline Lilly, ANT-MAN) is shattered when her teenage son is found dead after an apparent Oxycontin overdose, a truth that doesn’t sit well with her when an autopsy reveals that he has in fact been battered about the skull, the pills potentially poured down his throat instead of being ingested willingly. All three of these tenuously connected stories come together in ingenious ways to hit home a singular truth: our society is in the grip of a passive, silent enemy that infested the corners of our lives like vermin and, if not addressed soon, will continue to breed and evolve. A crisis, indeed.

Jarecki’s previous film, 2012’s ARBITRAGE, was a critical and commercial success and CRISIS also fared fairly well upon release, despite the limitations of our oddball, pandemic scrambled distribution system which saw it screening to socially distanced theaters while simultaneously streaming at home. Unfortunately for all involved, unrelated allegations of sexual misconduct ladled on Hammer dragged the picture’s reputation down a bit, which is rather revolting, really. A performer owes the audience a performance, nothing more and nothing less, and while allegations should be taken seriously by the parties involved, they have zero bearing on how good or bad a performance – or the film it lives in – is. Hammer is first rate here; a stressful, multi-layered turn that sees him wearing two faces, that of a ruthless cartel cog and a heavy-hearted lawman seeking justice. His arc is most certainly the driving force of the film, but he’s supported by a pair of equally compelling, emotional turns by Oldman and Lilly; the former, an academic who risks his livelihood and social standing to rage against what he sees as a slow, indifferent murder of the masses, the latter a woman who has survived the stranglehold of addiction only to see her beloved child get swallowed up the machine that fueled that addiction. Both performances are wrenching, with Oldman losing his innocence and Lilly re-framing her devastation into that of a kind of suicidal detective.

It takes some time to get into the rhythm of Jarecki’s story juggling, but it’s a necessary growing pain for a dense, intimately epic film that needs that space and patience to become what it does. This is a heavy, serious and frightening picture, one that coats its grim, grimy truths in a sort of sugar-shell of slick filmmaking to make them go down easier, but whose ultimate effects kick in hard as you go and whose implications will reverberate with you long after the credits stop crawling.

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