By Erica Abeel
Crisis takes on the opioid crisis – which has killed more people than the war in Vietnam — and gives corporate villainy (Big Pharma) the Hollywood treatment.
Crisis, written, produced, and directed by Nicholas Jarecki.
Films that tackle the social issues du jour can be esthetically tricky to pull off. Often earnest and clunky, the genre is apt to pit a virtuous puny David against a big bad Goliath, a reliable formula for manipulating viewers that’s more than a little simplistic and, well, manipulative. You can also expect a generous helping of righteousness, a reliable room emptier.
Or, in a reach for originality, an issue film can be wildly implausible. Consider A Promising Young Woman with the usually excellent Carey Mulligan (who might consider changing agents). This sordid vigilante exercise about a woman seeking revenge for a bestie has sucked up undue attention, in my view, by shamelessly exploiting the Me-Too furor. (Arts Fuse review and commentary) I can only marvel that no one has protested the gratuitous inclusion on the soundtrack of Wagner’s glorious prelude to Tristan and Isolde as the heroine stands on a highway clutching a wrench.
Crisis by Nicholas Jarecki is a rousing, ripped-from-the-headlines cri de coeur that eludes many pitfalls of the social issue genre. Judging by his past work, Jarecki is drawn to the subject of corporate malfeasance; the scion of a family of commodity brokers, he explores that world with something of an insider’s view. His much-admired Arbitrage (2012) skewered the shady machinations of charming but morally challenged hedge fund manager Richard Gere.
Crisis takes on the opioid crisis – which has killed more people than the war in Vietnam — and fingers Big Pharma as the arch villain. You wouldn’t go far wrong in substituting the name Sackler for the film’s Northlight family conglomerate. Anchored by a starry cast including Gary Oldman, Armie Hammer, Lily-Rose Depp, Michelle Rodriguez, and Greg Kinnear, Crisis gives corporate villainy the Hollywood treatment.
The film is packaged as a thriller with three stories – that eventually intersect — relayed in brief, punchy scenes that move like a game of hopscotch. Think Stephen Soderbergh’s Traffic about the drug industry — only with far fewer players. Melding the high-stakes tension of an action film with portraits of two intriguing characters (Oldman and Hammer), Crisis displays a sophisticated understanding of how the long, scaly tentacles of corporate power reach into unsuspected corners.
The anchoring storyline follows DEA agent and undercover agent Jake Kelly (Hammer) struggling to bust an international opioid-smuggling operation based in Montreal. His sister (Lily-Rose Depp) is herself a (somewhat) recovering addict. Story #2 – the least compelling – concerns an architect (Evangeline Lilly) and mother of a teen who has died from an overdose, and her mission to hunt down her son’s killers (the vigilante theme again, which maybe needs a vacation).
Storyline #3 is the richest: Gary Oldman is Professor Tyrone Brower, a scientist who makes the fateful discovery that a painkiller called Karalon is both addictive and deadly, contrary to the assertions of Northlight, who wants it greenlit by the FDA. The good professor has the inconvenient habit of sticking with the truths of science, which puts him in Northlight’s direct line of fire. What’s more, he encounters a bit of arm-twisting from his own world of Academe, since the mammoth company both supports his lab and offers to underwrite future research projects.
As double agent Jake Kelly, Hammer gets the man’s share of screen time, delivering an impeccable turn as a tough guy consumed by a single task: bust the international opioid-smuggling operation. A bullet to the head would be all in a day’s work. The slim backstory offers only a couple of scenes that reveal Kelly’s fury at the opioid addiction that’s destroying his sister (Lily-Rose Depp). In another film such a character might feel underwritten. Here, not so much: as charismatic, foul-mouthed Kelly, Hammer moves through Crisis like a missile. (Those of us who follow follies of the stars on social media will be aware that the actor has recently been, uh, hammered for weird sexual stuff — which he denies — and is fielding a few crises of his own.)
Kelly forms an ideal contrast with Oldman, terrific as idealistic, embattled Professor Brower, with a drinking problem tucked into his past, who receives an unwanted education about the world beyond his lab. A Northlight company stooge tries to persuade him to dump his findings about Karalon: “Think of all the good the family does” (Sackler again, and its museum wings, Harvard buildings, etc.). Kinnear is appropriately smarmy as the university dean nudging Brower to give principle a rest and just take the goddamn check from Northlight. Barring that, Brower might find himself de-tenured, and with a pregnant wife at home. In a priceless detail, the authorities manage to dredge up from Brower’s boozing days a complaint from a student about sexual advances. As a last resort Brower turns whistleblower and contacts the FDA to expose the perils of the new painkiller.
I leave you to discover how a government agency designed to protect the public responds. Crisis has topical written all over it. While focused on opioids and the white collar criminals who profit from their manufacture, Jarecki’s film aims wider, and might be viewed as a commentary on the war between ethics/morals and — let’s call them strategic considerations – that plays out on our TV screens every morning.
Erica Abeel is a novelist, film and cultural critic, and former professor at CUNY. Her most recent novel Wild Girls, about three women rebels of the ’50s, was an Oprah Magazine pick. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times, Indiewire, and other major sites and national publications. A former dancer, when not writing she’s in a Pilates class or at the barre. Her new novel, The Commune, will be published by Adelaide Books in September 2021.