Review: Crisis Falls Short with Multiple Storylines and Little to Surprise in Any of Them

Sometimes, it’s absolutely possible to make too much movie for one subject matter. The gold standard for films about the scope and damage of the drug trade has always been Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, and the ambition behind writer/director Nicholas (Arbitrage) Jarecki’s Crisis is similar to that Oscar-winning effort. With multiple story lines all feeding into and weaving through each other, Crisis narrows its focus into the shady world of opioids, which are legal with a prescription but are almost immediately manufactured illegally by cartels and sold to those not in possession of a doctor’s note. There are also doctors willing to write a seemingly infinite number of prescriptions for money, putting the real thing on the street. There’s a reason they call it an “opioid crisis,” because there’s a seemingly endless supply of the stuff, and it’s highly addictive and potentially deadly.

Crisis Image courtesy of the film.

Crisis attacks the issue from multiple angles, beginning with a DEA agent (Armie Hammer) posing as a drug trafficker who is putting together a Fentanyl deal that will, if successful, create a supply chain from Canada to the U.S. and will bring down multiple cartels. Perhaps fueled by his desire to get these drugs off the street, he also has a dug-addicted sister (Lily-Rose Depp) who drifts in and out of rehab in a way that is destroying his family. We also meet architect Claire Reimann (Evangeline Lilly), a former Oxycodone addict whose teenage son turns up dead of an Oxy overdose, despite his never showing signs that he ever took a drug in his life, let alone such a dangerous one. With no substantial help from the police, her own investigation into her son’s death sends her careening toward Hammer’s fragile set up and threatens to derail his work.

The final and most interesting segment of the film involves university professor and independent drug researcher Dr. Tyrone Brower (Gary Oldman), whose team is doing clinical trials on a new drug that is being marketed by the pharmaceutical giant that created it as the world’s first non-addictive painkiller. The company's main representative (Luke Evans) supplies a great deal of money to the university in order to secure their seal of approval. The problem is, Dr. Brower’s team discovers that the drug is, in fact, addictive and deadly, but that it takes slightly longer for the patient to become addicted than current opioids. When he brings his findings to the dean of the school (Greg Kinnear), he’s pressured to sign off on the drug anyway and ignore his own findings—with a handsome cash reward if he does so. The pressure is on since the drug is set to go to market—having already received FDA approval. Does he do what’s in the financial interest of his university, or does he turn whistleblower?

There’s no denying the cast of Crisis is superior. There is fantastic supporting work from the likes of Michelle Rodriguez, Martin Donovan, Kid Cudi, Veronica Ferres, and Indira Varma, some of whom are great despite their roles barely registering in terms of screen time—Rodriguez most notably. But the real issue is that the DEA agent storyline and the one involving the grieving mother don’t give us anything we haven’t seen in other movies, and they certainly don’t add anything new to the way this type of story is told. At least the Oldman storyline might have been more compelling as a standalone film, since it seems the most topical in a time when there is a school of thought that a certain crop of vaccines were pushed through the approval process in a hurry.

These three stories don’t so much intersect as they do bump into each other sloppily, with the Oldman storyline barely grazing the other two. But instead of showing us the intrinsic harm opioids are doing to our world, Jarecki uses the subject as an excuse to fill the world with more cardboard cut-out drug dealers, each of them acting scary but not really doing much to convince us they’re any more dangerous than Armie Hammer's DEA agent on a bad night. There is some suspense and a little action, but for the most part, the only tension the film generates involves people pursuing Oldman, digging up old allegations against him and working to discredit him as a researcher and human being. All told, Crisis is a whole-heartedly average endeavor about a very serious subject, one that it never quite gets to the heart of.

The film is now playing in select theaters and will be available via VOD beginning March 5.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.