This drama/thriller features three stories centered around the opioid crisis. First, there is Jake Kelly (Armie Hammer), a DEA agent working undercover to disrupt a joint Canadian and Armenian fentanyl operation. We soon learn that Kelly’s fight against opioids is not purely professional. His sister Emmie Kelly (Lily-Rose Depp) struggles with opioid addiction. The second of the three follows Claire Reimann (Evangeline Lilly), a single mother and recovering addict who, when her son dies of an apparent opioid overdose according to the police, decides to begin her own investigation, as he had no known history of drug use.
Finally, we follow Dr. Tyrone Brower (Gary Oldman), a professor and researcher doing contract work with a powerful pharmaceutical company on a reportedly non-addictive opioid. However, Dr. Bower soon becomes aware of data that suggests this product is not only addictive, but potentially more addictive than other opioids, Because of these findings, Dr. Bower wonders whether he should speak out, despite pressure from the pharmaceutical company and his university.
The film follows each of the protagonists as they fall deeper into the world and complexity of opiates. Kelly grows to understand how advanced and dangerous the criminal enterprises surrounding these substances are, in addition to dealing with bureaucracy and his sister’s addiction. Claire learns how younger people are targeted and drawn into the world of opioids, while processing the loss of a loved one. Dr. Bower’s story focuses on the struggle someone finds themselves wrestling with when they feel the need to speak out on something potentially dangerous, but risk losing their job and reputation as whistleblowing on a large company would violate confidentiality agreements.
Director and writer Nicholas Jarecki crafts a film that examines the opioid crisis from many of its numerous angles including: The criminal and law enforcement side, the effect it can have on users and their loved ones, and the business, politics, and corruption that can result from pharmaceutical companies dealing with these kinds of substances. This range of scope is impressive and keeps the film from glossing over any one aspect of the crisis. Jarecki also takes great care to make sure that all three protagonists feel fully formed. While watching the film, one feels that each of these characters has their unique strengths, regrets, pains, and histories even though these things are not all overtly spelled out for the audience.
The emotional resonance of the characters is due in no small part to the strength of the performances given by the actors. This is especially true for Evangeline Lilly, who is utterly-convincing as a woman trying to understand how she could lose her son in this fashion without her knowing, and the grief, anger, and desire for understanding that accompanies that kind of loss. Oldman commands the screen, as usual, playing a man who realizes he may have grown complacent in his work due to the compensation he received. However, upon realization of the possible dangers of this drug, begins a thoughtful and introspective journey on what it means to do the right thing. This is an arc that Oldman brings completely to life. Hammer embodies the frustration of someone who sees the effect these drugs are having on people but knows the law-enforcement system is not able to have an impact proportionate to the amount of damage that these substances are causing.
The cinematography by Nicolas Bolduc is also fantastic. Bolduc mostly keeps the camera wide and tracking. This has the effect of drawing the viewer’s eye constantly to the action on screen. This visual style also works thematically as this distant observing camera matches the characters mindsets as they get more involved in the dangerous world of opioids and begin to wonder who they can trust. We the audience share in the characters anxiety to constantly be looking over their shoulder and see what is going on around them.
While a three-pronged narrative approach allows the film to examine this serious issue in a multitude of ways, the necessity for the film to cut between each of the stories labours the pacing and risks jaring viewers in and out of a viewing experience and disrupting the sense of momentum. For instance, when one story is reaching its climax, the film cuts to expositing action in another story. While Jarecki does somewhat address this by tying some plot threats from the different stories together, they never fully converge into one cohesive narrative. This is especially true when it comes to the story surrounding Oldman’s character, that at times feels like it is part of a different film.
While the film’s narrative structure causes some unevenness in pacing, viewers interested in a film that features strong, layered characters and is unafraid to examine a complex and important issue in its many facets should seek Crisis out.
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