Crisis (2021)

After text promising a film “inspired by true events”, Crisis opens with a young man – a boy, really – hiking in the snow near the Canadian border, when he is surrounded, chased and apprehended by an overwhelming cordon of police. Cedric Beauville (Charles Champagne) was transporting bagfuls of green pills – fentanyl, an opioid originally synthesised as a medicinal painkiller, but also distributed illegally as a (more potent) substitute for heroin. This seizure has rapid consequences. Drug dealer Jake Kelly (Armie Hammer) meets his Armenian contacts in Detroit, Michigan, with both nervous that Cedric, now in custody, may name names. In fact Jake is a DEA officer, working undercover and hoping to set up a meeting between the Armenian dealers and a ruthless Canadian fentanyl-manufacturing gang so that he can bring both sides down simultaneously. That at first he briefly appears to be a genuine gangster himself establishes the fine borderline between legality and criminality that will become crucial to the film. Jake also has a younger sister, Emmie (Lily-Rose Depp), who is in rehab for a heroin addiction from which she simply does not want to recover. This is not so much a wild coincidence as a way of explaining Jake’s tenacious commitment to ending the drug trade: his professional work is also personal.

Architect and single mother Claire Reimann (Evangeline Lilly) is herself a recovering addict, after an accident led her to become hooked on the prescription painkiller OxyContin. When tragedy befalls her beloved teen son David Reimann (Billy Bryk), Claire’s quest for answers will put her on a trail of clues that the police have ignored – clues that lead all the way to the Canadian kingpin Mother (Guy Nadon) and his criminal operation producing fentanyl. Meanwhile, when academic biologist Dr Tyrone Brower (Gary Oldman) discovers that his lab tests contradict claims being made by big pharma company Northlight that their latest analgesic product Klaralon is non-addictive and safe to use, he must decide, amid mounting pressure from both Northlight and his friend the university’s Dean (Greg Kinnear), whether to bury the evidence and continue receiving funding for his university lab or to turn whistleblower and expose the corporate cover-up.

In other words, Crisis is very much following a narrative pattern established by the British TV series Traffik (1989), Steven Soderbergh’s film adaptation Traffic (2000), and the subsequent American TV miniseries Traffic (2004). For this ensemble film is a tripartite anatomisation of the trade in drugs, revealing problems at the manufacturer, user and law enforcement ends, and converting these into often tense drama. The difference here is one of focus: writer/director Nicholas Jarecki (Arbitrage, 2012) moves away from purely illicit drugs into the murkier world of synthetic opioids which are manufactured and marketed through legitimate as well as illegitimate channels, even though they can be much more addictive and damaging than the heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines that featured in the various versions of Traffic. The particular deadly drug epidemic being traced in America by Crisis is not coming entirely from criminal sources.

Jake’s and Claire’s narratives – one of dangerous double agency, the other of desperate revenge – will eventually, violently intersect, but it is Tyrone’s formally separate story that gives Crisis its moral backbone. Jarecki may leave unstated, or at least understated, the connections between this stuffy biologist’s ethical crux and the other two storylines, but the inference is nonetheless there to be drawn: that when multinationals, in pursuit of profits, knowingly release dependency-inducing, destructive substances onto the market, they are little different, for all their wealth, respectability and influence, from the gangs distributing and dealing drugs in the streets. 

Dr Bill Simons (Luke Evans) and Dr Meg Holmes (Veronica Ferres), the execs of Northlight, show a corrupt, albeit well-placed confidence in a system that they know will always favour the party with the biggest cheque book, and they are adroit at funding yes-men and discrediting or silencing naysayers. Tyrone never stands a chance against them, but he still has a choice whether to preserve his integrity as a scientist and a human being, or to allow himself to become complicit in a crime with horrific real-world consequences. At the opposite end of the criminal spectrum from his over-the-top, pill-popping Norman Stansfield in Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional (1994), Oldman here dials things right down, as an ordinary man, haunted and increasingly isolated in his desire to do the right thing.

Deftly intercutting between these three stories, and steadily ratcheting up the tension, Crisis shows an America whose addictions are not only exploited, but also manufactured, by different commercial interests – some lawful, some less so. It is a bleak message, although Jarecki does also, ultimately, hold out the possibility of hope, at least at an individual level. All the dramas here are, of course, a fiction (as is the drug Klaralon that Tyrone has been testing), but sobering text at the film’s close lays out the real annual death toll from opioid overdoses.

strap: Nicholas Jarecki’s ensemble feature is a tripartite anatomisation of the opioid epidemic afflicting America

© Anton Bitel