CALLERI: The opioid crisis is delivered through the thriller’s lens

From left, Gary Oldman, Armie Hammer, and Evangeline Lilly star in the new thriller, “Crisis.” (Quiver Distribution)

Think about this. The reality of the opioid crisis in the United States has been part of people’s lives and a staple of newspaper and magazine stories, as well as television news reports and specials, for two decades. 

The over-prescribing and abuse of opioids became a fundamental part of the American subconscious in 1991 with what’s now being called “the first wave.” The spiral of opioid addiction and overdosing during this period led to what is still a unrelenting spotlight on painkillers as a panacea for everything that aches, possible pharmaceutical company manipulation of test studies, chaos regarding families, voracious corporate greed, criminal activity, finger-pointing, and recrimination. 

Crisis is a word that has been ascribed to opioid use and abuse, and “Crisis” is the name of a new movie, which is written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki, and examines the world of opioids from three points-of-view: police thriller, scientific melodrama, and personal tragedy. The stories being told don’t mix except when absolutely necessary, but they all stay firmly in your mind as the well-acted film unreels. 

“Crisis” opened in theaters recently and may still be playing in a select few. As is the new rule in motion picture exhibition these days, it has shifted to VOD and streaming, and arrives on DVD and Blu-ray April 20.

A major Canadian drug trafficker, an older male crime boss who goes by the name of Mother (Guy Nadon), oversees a Fentanyl smuggling operation between Canada and the U.S. The American government is working with Canadians to cut off the drug pipeline. This aspect of the movie involves the D.E.A. and other law enforcement channels, and features top-notch performances from Armie Hammer as agent Jake Kelly, Michelle Rodriguez as D.E.A. Supervisor Garrett, and director Jarecki, himself, as Hammer’s partner Stanley Foster. Of course, counterfeit drugs create an added danger for anyone who uses them. 

Kelly’s sister (Emmie, played by Lily-Rose Depp, Johnny’s real-life daughter) is an unrepentant drug user; therefore, he’s also forced to deal with her addiction and severe downward spiral. 

The second story follows an architect, Claire Reimann, played by an extraordinary Evangeline Lilly, who’s in recovery from her own addiction to OxyContin, She reacts to the questionable death of her well-behaved, robustly intelligent teenage son David (Billy Bryk) with intense anger, suicidal impulses, and a deep-rooted desire for revenge. Reportedly, he took one Fentanyl pill and never recovered. Her sister Susan (Mia Kirshner) provides emotional support. Claire wants the truth. And, she wants her pound of flesh.

The third level of “Crisis” is the most complex and revolves around Dr. Tyrone Brower (an excellent Gary Oldman), a college professor, who also oversees a laboratory used by drug companies for independent testing of new products. Well-funded by Big Pharma, Professor Brower is expected to be a rubber stamp for pharmaceutical companies, whose urgent goal is to overcome regulatory hurdles. A roadblock occurs when Brower’s young lab investigators uncover a serious problem with a new pain drug called Klaralon. Brower becomes conflicted. 

There’s a common desire for a “non-addictive” painkiller to be successful. However, some studies about Klaralon indicate there may be issues with the physiological dynamic known as the blood-brain barrier. The goal of Northlight Pharmaceutical is to get Klaralon into the marketplace and overtake OxyContin in sales. Brower is a scientist with a conscience. 

Northlight delivers its best option for Brower to look the other way: a check for $780,000, supposedly a grant for continued lab funding, but in reality a check made out in his name, not the university’s. 

The company’s chief executive Dr. Meg Holmes (Veronica Ferres) and her associate Dr. Bill Simons (Luke Evans), sophisticated and well-dressed villains, are ready to go to the mat to get FDA approval. Down and dirty is their new motto. Subtle and slick is their game. Wasn’t there an “episode” some years ago between Brower and a female student? Brower’s wife Madira (Indira Varma) is in his corner. 

The dean of the university (Greg Kinnear) talks out of both sides of his mouth. He supports Brower, but he also doesn’t want to play “politics” to prevent receiving more money for his school down the road. He’s slippery and creepy, and Kinnear is perfect in the role. His mea culpa moment is a high point of this section of the film.

“Crisis” begins with a sweeping panorama of the border between Quebec and Vermont. Nicolas Bolduc’s cinematography throughout the well-crafted movie is outstanding, and Duff Smith’s film editing never loses its balance. 

We travel back and forth between Detroit and Montreal as Jarecki, who directed “Arbitrage” from 2012, delivers what turns out to be a good example of this movie genre. Yes, there are hints of the multi-layered “Traffic,” and the depiction of, and gun violence at, the key drug drop danced a little too close to “The French Connection.” However, these elements don’t detract. 

I rarely write that a film should have been longer, but “Crisis,” which clocks in at 118-minutes, would have been stronger if some of the characters were better fleshed out. There is some missing information I thought was worth knowing. Again, less a major minus and more a desire for content that could have enhanced the storytelling. 

“Crisis” held my interest and is recommended. 

Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette and the CNHI news network. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

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