Set against the backdrop of the opioid epidemic in the US, Crisis is the type of solid, mid-budget, issue-driven thriller drama that used to do well at the box office and score Oscar nominations and wins. Evoking comparisons to the likes of Syriana, The Insider and most notably Steven Soderbergh’s drug trade epic Traffic, it raises awareness towards an issue impacting society by crafting a story for the screen about it populated by movie stars.
This is a strategy in the past that has resulted in plenty of gripping, important and financially successful films. And yet, the reaction to Crisis has been relatively muted. As to the reasons for this, there could be many. In an era where franchises and superheroes have taken over the mainstream discussion about cinema, great movies of a similar vein to Crisis in recent years like Dark Waters and The Report have gone underseen. Add to this the Covid-19 pandemic, which has thrown film release schedules and the very nature of cinemagoing into disarray, and the recent allegations against one of its stars Armie Hammer and Crisis seems to have had the deck stacked against it.
However, helmed by writer-director Nicholas Jarecki (who made 2012’s excellent Arbitrage starring Richard Gere), there is lots to like about the film. Similarly to Traffic, Crisis is comprised of three different narratives centered around the drug industry that when combined (and sometimes interlinked) show just how much of a problem opioid addiction is in the United States, the extent of it and that it is getting worse.
In one plotline, Gary Oldman plays a university professor compelled to become a whistleblower. This is after a high-profile new pharmaceutical drug his department is hired to test out proves dangerously addictive and his employers at both the pharma company and his university disregard the data. In another, Hammer plays an undercover DEA agent trying to orchestrate a major sale of Fentanyl between American and Canadian drug lords in order to bust the criminals involved. This is as he tries to wean his addict sister (Lily-Rose Depp) off of oxycontin. The third plotline centres on Evangeline Lilly’s successful architect and recovering addict searching for answers after her teenage son is found dead from a suspected overdose.
Crisis is grimly effective throughout, right up until the shocking opioid statistics that close the film. Partly this is down to the performances from the stacked cast – I haven’t even mentioned Greg Kinnear, Luke Evans, Michelle Rodriguez and the many other noteworthy actors in supporting roles. As one of the leads, Oldman never puts a foot wrong playing an at times flawed, but ultimately good man compelled to do what’s right. Not only enthralling in the more fiery, shouty scenes where his character gets to go full Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight, he also excels in quieter, more vulnerable moments where we see how scared his professor character is of what will happen to him and his pregnant wife (Indira Varma) if he continues in his quest.
Hammer’s presence is distracting in Crisis given the recent accusations against the actor. That said, he is compelling as an undercover agent haunted by what he has seen in the field. We see his character struggling to cope as he learns that – both at a professional and personal level – the effort and sacrifices he has made to get illegal drugs off the street appear to have made little to no difference. Meanwhile, after a decade of being underutilised in The Hobbit trilogy and the MCU, Lilly shows viewers how good she can be in the right role. She gives a powerful performance as a mother not just grieving her son but terrified his death was in some way connected to her own demons.
Keeping Crisis both entertaining and urgent throughout also is Jarecki’s direction. Cutting between the three different narratives at a brisk pace, the filmmaker makes the movie feel energetic while also highlighting how inextricably linked the three stories are. He simultaneously shows how unsafe, addictive drugs make it to the market, how they impact ordinary people who are later forced to turn to illegal substitutes to get their fix, and how the police try in vain to prevent the latter from happening. As Oldman’s professor tries to explain, once enough people are hooked on the drugs, it “just doesn’t go back in the bottle”.
Despite its strengths, what prevents Crisis from reaching the heights of some of the similar movies that have precedented it is the brief time it spends with its lead characters, a problem most likely down to its length. Clocking in at under two hours and with the story split three ways, each main player gets around 35 minutes of screentime each. As such, there’s not a lot of time to make the characters feel like real people with rich internal lives as opposed to just symbols or talking points for what the movie is trying to say – despite the good work of the cast.
Similarly, for a film that seems to pride itself on grittiness, there are times the viewer wishes it was richer on unique specifics about the world it is depicting. While there’s one great moment early on where Hammer’s undercover cop casually climbs into the trunk of his partner’s car so he can move around undetected, much of the movie is riffing on the iconography and tropes of crime stories we’ve seen onscreen before as opposed to giving audiences something wholly fresh.
These criticisms aside though, Crisis is gripping throughout thanks to the sheer level of talent onscreen and its important subject matter. The film’s ending is particularly strong too. While the movie shows how difficult it can be to fight the opioid epidemic through a system established by those who benefit from it, its final scenes argue that it can be combated by going against that very system – a conclusion that feels authentic and true.