Over the years, many Hollywood directors have attempted to cash in on the wealth of storytelling material to be extracted from discussions around the illegal drug trade, opioid crisis, and War on Drugs. Some have been more successful than others: Steven Soderbergh took home the Oscar for Best Director for his 2000 hit Traffic, as did the Coen brothers for their 2007 masterpiece, No Country For Old Men.
In his latest feature Crisis, director and writer Nicholas Jarecki attempts to do the same with the ongoing opioid epidemic in the USA, only without the grace or nuance of his Hollywood predecessors. Following closely in Soderbergh’s narrative footsteps, Jarecki frames Crisis through multiple converging storylines, each of which chronicles the devastating impact of the opioid epidemic.
The first of the three major plotlines follows undercover federal agent Jake Kelly (played by Armie Hammer, whose recent sexual assault allegations and subsequent retreat from the spotlight overshadow much of his performance here). Kelly is working tirelessly to bust a prominent drug ring before their first major fentanyl distribution operation, all the while trying to wrangle his opiate-addict sister (Lily-Rose Depp) back onto the path of sobriety.
Running in parallel is the story of architect and single mother Claire Reiman (played brilliantly by MCU‘s Evangeline Lilly) searching for answers surrounding her son’s unexpected oxycodone overdose. An ex-addict herself, Claire refuses to accept her son’s death as the police present it to her, and takes it upon herself to find the truth – getting embroiled in the dealings of a major drug ring in the process.
Rounding out the principal cast is Gary Oldman, playing a professor turned whistle-blower Dr. Tyrone Brower who, upon a routine drug analysis, discovers that a ground-breaking, new and non-addictive painkiller is in fact highly addictive and potentially fatal. Facing pressure from the pharmaceutical company that funds his research and the university board desperate to protect their institution’s reputation, Brower spends much of the film wrestling with what to do with what he knows, and whether the repercussions of taking it public are worth it.
The three major storylines intersect a handful of times throughout the film, but not quite enough to make any of them feel fully developed. Instead, Jarecki presents us with three superficial and tenuously linked commentaries on various aspects of the opioid crisis: the concerning power of big pharma, the police’s relentless war on drugs, and the intimate impact of addiction on a family.
Invariably, Crisis barely scratches the surface of any of these highly nuanced issues. Instead, we flick between Hammer, Oldman, and Lilly as they all stumble through well-trodden character arcs towards their wearingly predictable conclusions. As usual, Oldman turns in solid work, but the real stand-out here is Lilly, whose terrific performance does much of the heavy-lifting in making the film decidedly more watchable.
Perhaps the real crisis here was the one Jarecki clearly had when deciding which issues to tackle. Instead of homing in on one, he sets himself the monstrous task of capturing the full scope of the opioid crisis and all its facets, examining the epidemic on an individual, institutional and political scale. His ambition may be commendable but the execution, less so.
Given the contemporary relevance of its subject matter and astonishingly star-studded cast, Crisis should have been an easy homerun. Yet thanks to its reductive storytelling and lack of focus, it unfortunately falls flat.
A UK release date for Crisis is yet to be announced.