Crisis, the latest film from Nicholas Jarecki (Arbitrage) does for the opioid crisis what Crash attempted to do for race relations in America. By tying together a series of separate stories, all involving the creation, movement, and usage of opioids, and then pulling back the lens, we are given a big picture view of the insidious nature of the pharmaceutical industry, both legal and illegal, and the piles of red tape that exist seemingly to keep it in motion, no matter what the cost, financial or human.
The opioid crisis has claimed countless lives over the past decade, and it remains a largely unaddressed evil (a post-script attached to Crisis features some seriously disheartening statistics). Doctors are incentivized to over-prescribe, pharmaceutical companies are incentivized to continue creating more powerful products, and human beings are incentivized to take these medicines to manage pain in situations where it might not necessarily be the right choice. And once addiction takes over, be it to medicine, money, power, or otherwise, it’s a difficult cycle to break. Meanwhile, there are people who really do need effective pain medication, and are deserving of a safe way to go about it. Each branch of the crisis seems to feed into another, and the result is one of tragedy, with normal, real people being pulled into addiction and, in extreme cases, to an early grave.
It’s terrifying stuff, and Crisis explores it with a commendable depth. The film opens with a drug bust on the Canadian border. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police chase down a single, hooded youth with a backpack full of pills. We soon meet Jake Kelly (Arnie Hammer), a DEA agent whose undercover work is tied directly to the drugs which were seized in this bust. It’s his job to chase his leads as high up the distribution chain as he can while trying not to get himself killed in the process. We get the sense that this is a personal mission, as his sister (Lily-Rose Depp) is currently fighting an addiction of her own. Elsewhere we meet Claire Reimann (Evangeline Lilly), a recovering addict, fighting to stay sober so she can be the best mom possible to her son. But when her son goes missing it threatens everything she holds dear. The third story involves a researcher, Dr. Tyrone Brower (Gary Oldman), whose job it is to test a new drug called Klaralon, which claims to be the most effective and least addictive pain killer yet. But when Dr. Brower’s research shows that Klaralon may not be as safe as it seems, he must weigh his options on whether to go public before the drug obtains FDA approval.
These three stories share an equal amount of screen time, and all are quite compelling in the ways that they exhibit the ins and outs of the opioid market. Through Kelly, we see the difficulties law enforcement faces in trying to ebb the flow of prescription drugs into the black market, and the immoral things they must facilitate in order to bring the biggest villain they can to justice. Through Claire we see how regular, everyday people can be drawn into a web of addiction and deceit. And through Dr. Brower, we learn of the many hurdles that a do-gooder must face when standing up to a corporate behemoth.
It’s not immediately apparent how all of these stories intersect, but since we’ve all seen this sort of thing before, it’s easy to trust that the film knows where it is going. Once everything starts to come together, it does so rather naturally, connecting the stories where needed, but giving each enough room to breathe on its own. In most cases, these ligaments are tenuous, as the actions of each story only truly effect each other intermittently, at least until the very end. In fact, I struggle to remember if Dr. Brower’s story connects to the other two at all. No matter, it all generally works, and keeps the structure from feeling too much like a gimmick.
As far as thrillers go, this isn’t breaking any new ground, formally speaking, playing the material as straightforward as can be. On the one hand, that means that there’s not a lot of directorial flair to speak of (and perhaps it’s better this way — it’s a somber film, not in need of flashiness). On the other, it means that the performances get to rise to the top. Across the board, everyone is doing solid work, even if a handful of the characters across this vast ensemble aren’t given much to do (one side character meets a sudden demise, and while it’s played as a heavy moment, it doesn’t quite register as such — but it remains shocking nonetheless). In terms of plot, this is a purely functional film that watches cleanly and never drags, but its strength is sourced less in narrative than in thematic heft.
To reiterate, the themes emerge from the broad expanse of what is being covered by the plot. It’s so easy to blame the opioid crisis on a singular entity, but as with anything, there’s so so so much more to the story. Through Crisis, we are given a window into multiple levels of the epidemic and all its inner-workings, while being reminded that as insurmountable an issue it all seems to be, it remains a human one. As such, it’s a problem that can be solved. While audiences may not all be fully engaged by its thriller dressings, Crisis remains a valuable and powerful educational tool, and one that provokes thought in an area that could stand to have more light shed upon it.
Released in theaters and on VOD March 5, 2021.