“Crisis” milks the opioid crisis for a seedy, multi-pronged crime thriller

Crisis (Quiver Distribution) Crisis (Quiver Distribution)

Armie Hammer, Evangeline Lilly, Gary Oldman, and others tackle different facets of the drug trade in an enjoyable, if flawed, procedural.

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In the late ’90s, pharmaceutical companies claimed that the opioids that they produced weren’t addictive, causing a spike in medical providers prescribing them. This claim was, of course, false, and the influx of people who became addicted to opioids has created a public health crisis that results in an economic burden of $7.85 billion a year. Even worse is the human cost. In 2018,  67,367 Americans were killed via drug overdose. Of that number 69.5% of those deaths were caused by Opioids- mainly synthetic opioids. 

With grim statistics like that, it’s no shock that writer/director Nicholas Jarecki would choose to use the backdrop of the opioid epidemic in his latest crime thriller, the aptly-named Crisis. The tragedy of addiction fueled by the greed of both gang members and pharmaceutical executives is prime fodder for drama and action. However, if handled poorly, the execution can quickly turn melodramatic, or even downright offensive. Fortunately, Crisis is an enjoyable (if flawed) movie that manages to milk the premise without becoming too contrived. 

Rather than focusing on a singular narrative, Jarecki opts instead to follow three people caught up in the opioid crisis. Jake Kelley (Armie Hammer) is a DEA agent working undercover to bust a group of Quebecois drug smugglers. Claire Reimman (Evangeline Lilly) is a recovering oxycodone addict who finds herself delving into the underworld of Detroit and Montreal when her son is found dead of an apparent overdose. Tyrone Brower (Gary Oldman) is a professor and scientist who finds himself in hot water when he discovers that the company that funds his research is developing a highly addictive drug- even though they’re touting it is a nonaddictive alternative to oxycodone. 

Crisis (Quiver Distribution)
Crisis (Quiver Distribution)

It’s understandable why Jarecki would want to write a multi-narrative story: he wants to give a broader picture of the situation by showing the people pushing opioids (legally or not), those who find their lives destroyed by the drug, and those who try (mostly in vain) to keep the crisis in check. To his credit, Jarecki wrote three compelling stories that are interesting enough for their own films. In a way, it’s like getting three thrillers for the price of one. Jake’s story is a hardboiled cop thriller, with plenty of suspense and violence to keep you engaged. Claire’s subplot gives the audience a mystery as she tries to find how her son is involved in all of this, while Tyrone’s determination to stand up to “Big Pharma” gives the film a shot of enjoyable self-righteousness. 

While Crisis has three great stories to work with, it struggles with keeping all its balls in the air. This is most evident in the first fifteen minutes, where it feels like Jarecki is just rushing through each subplot’s setup so he can get to the good stuff. Fortunately, once Crisis gets to the second act it mostly keeps up a reasonable pace, never staying too long on one narrative but giving each enough time so everything makes sense. Granted, nothing in this movie feels particularly deep, and there are moments when time constraints cause the plot to rely on contrivances, but nothing feels cheap or easy either.

The other downside to the multi-narrative approach is that it’s probably why the characters can feel somewhat archetypal. We have the tough-as-nails double agent, the middle-class mom brought to savagery by grief, and a principled scientist willing to stand against corporate giants. While the script does give them enough back story and nuance that they aren’t one-dimensional, it’s not like we haven’t seen these types of characters before. I can’t blame Jarecki for wanting to flatten characterization to make the film easier to follow, but it’s not exactly groundbreaking.

While Crisis has three great stories to work with, it struggles with keeping all its balls in the air.

Fortunately, the cast manages to elevate their characters above their less-than-inspired roles. Oldman is the clear standout, giving Tyrone the type of flustered affability you want in a professor, and he carries this affability in even the tensest of moments. The result is a performance that walks the tightrope of vulnerability and strength. Lilly is also great, portraying a woman constantly on the edge of a breakdown, yet able to keep her nerve even as she finds herself getting in over her head. 

This, of course, leads us to the elephant in the room: Armie Hammer. Once you find out something unsavory about an actor, it can definitely color your view of their performance. But if I’m being objective, my hot take on Hammer in Crisis is that he’s… pretty good. He brings the intensity required for the role, even if that intensity can be a little one-note. That said, while Hammer’s portrayal of Jake Kelley is good, it’s not good enough to rehabilitate his image. 

The cinematography and editing are competent, but there’s not much spectacle to justify leaving the house. This is especially prevalent in the first act which has so many establishing shots of cities that it feels like you’re watching a B-Roll Koyaanisqatsi.

Crisis doesn’t break new ground, and I doubt it will make anyone think about addiction in a new way. But it’s a compelling flick that treats its subject matter with the seriousness it deserves. It’s good enough, and that’s good enough.

Crisis is available in theaters, on digital and on demand March 5th.

Crisis Trailer:

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