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Crisis Review: Opioid Thriller Looks Beyond the Stats

Given the tabloid fodder following Armie Hammer recently, Nicholas Jarecki’s Crisis won’t make a big splash in the movie world. That’s a shame because the film doesn’t deserve to be buried. It’s an ensemble-driven thriller made for adults. One that turns the abstract figures of America’s losing battle with opioids into flesh and blood human beings. Jarecki’s all-encompassing approach covers drug dealers shipping Fentanyl, a new opioid called Klaralon with lower addictive qualities, and the research teams designed to investigate its potential side effects.

From the criminal investigation standpoint, we have Hammer as Jake, an undercover narcotics investigator coordinating a Fentanyl smuggling operation from Canada to the U.S. Gary Oldman plays Dr. Tyrone Brower, a researcher testing Klaralon’s addictive properties, while a donor-happy dean (Greg Kinnear) hastes him along. Last, there’s Evangeline Lilly as a mother recovering from an Oxycontin addiction who recently lost her son to drugs. The weighty material suggests a story both harsh and realistic, but it does veer at times to the melodramatic. Given more time to fully explore all three strands of the story, the clichés might have hit less hard, but with the necessity of this being a two-hour film and not an HBO miniseries, it’ll have to do. Jarecki, who also wrote the film, relies on viewers to have watched a syllabus consisting of films like The Insider and Traffic to move along with the brisk narrative.

Jarecki films Crisis similar to his last film, Arbitrage. Shots roll out with confidence and the pace never slacks. Scenes hit their necessary plot points and then immediately move onward. Everything is as clean and efficient as the labs used to create designer pain medication. Steven Soderbergh‘s Traffic blew audiences away in 2000 with a starkly honest take on the war on drugs, and, sadly, close to zero progress has been made. The players are the same. The only difference is that the pharmaceutical industry is the supplier, complete with a rubberstamp whenever they need it. Once the product is legal, the impediments just fall away. Suits lean on scientists to rush production of new designer drugs. Doctors get financial incentives to push said painkillers. Deep pockets and marketing do the rest.

Klaralon executive (Luke Evans) pushes Dr. Brower (Oldman) to confirm one of the last studies that will grant the drug’s approval at the FDA. The problem is Brower’s researcher informs him that the drug is passing through the blood-brain barrier. Klaralon is three times as addictive as Oxycontin. When Dr. Brower voices his concerns to the dean, he’s assured they wouldn’t have gotten this far with the FDA if it weren’t okay. Oldman’s role is one of many characters who face being the harbingers to sound the alarm, but few accept the call. Multiple characters voice similar iterations of “what difference does it make?”


Dr. Brower is more in line with two of Gary Oldman’s most recent roles, Winston Churchill and Herman Mankiewicz. If Crisis is ever in danger of getting too quiet, Oldman rings out with righteous fury. While Oldman is the first billed for Crisis, it’s Hammer who does the most with his screentime. His Jake isn’t as developed as Oldman’s Dr. Brower, but his plot sets viewers on edge. When he’s not busting illegal prescription rings, he’s undercover with vicious criminals. Such as “Mother,” a man who has no problem killing a man before he finishes a sentence. Hammer doesn’t embellish his agent into a superman. He portrays him as the overworked cop trying to survive another day masquerading as a drug dealer.

Jake’s also given a sister in rehab (played by Lily-Rose Depp) to make his work matter but given the stakes, she’s an unnecessary addition to a large cast. All of that time could better flesh out other plotlines. While Evangeline Lilly’s presence is a reminder that she can dig her teeth into screen material when given to her, the role strains credulity in patches. Dogged mothers have and can pursue an amateur murder investigation, but how much progress is tenable once she’s among murderers and hardened criminals? Crisis prides itself on offering reality, but that’s asking perhaps too much from audiences. She shines most when striking the viewer’s sense of empathy. We’re all just one bad week or surgery away from being a statistic.

The film doesn’t preach or offer solutions to the drug war and opioid addiction. It merely captures the degree of apathy that allows such processes to take place. The insidious presence of money colors each aspect of the chain, making it easier to pass the buck further down the line–a familiar conundrum for many during the last several years. Perhaps too cynical for how the film ultimately wraps up, Crisis is still a worthwhile look at the intersection of drugs, industry, and government. It’s a bit too much story for this film to handle, but it’s done so assuredly that one overlooks these flaws.


Crisis will be available on digital video March 16.