Who could not like a film where the lead villain — a short, bearded Quebecois drug dealer — is called Mother? (Hey, you! Put your hand down.)
Writer/director Nicholas Jarecki, whose previous effort, Arbitrage (2012), dealt with a troubled hedge-fund magnate, a role earning Richard Gere a Golden Globe Best Actor nomination, has now focused on the opioid epidemic. As noted on screen: “Over 100,000 people die from opioid overdoses every year, a figure that grows over 20% annually.”
Employing a triptych plotline, Jarecki’s passion project attacks from three semi-disparate perspectives. There’s a mother seeking revenge for the death of her teenage son; a university professor soul-searching on whether to reveal the results of his lab work that might cost the very drug company funding his research billions; and an undercover cop trying his best to upend a Canadian-based fentanyl operation.
The first two storylines, although rather familiar, are often engaging due to the highly committed performances of Evangeline Lilly and Gary Oldman.
Lilly is Claire Reiman, an architect once addicted to oxycodone, who’s now coping by attending a weekly support group. There she recounts slamming a car door on her wrist to get a lapsed prescription renewed. Sadly, one evening, before she can spell out “P-H-A-R-M-A-C-E-U-T-I-C-A-L-S,” her only child is found dead with a foaming mouth next to his bicycle. What at first seems to be an overdose is eventually diagnosed as something more sinister, causing Lilly to get a gun and head off to Montreal for revenge.
Oldman, meanwhile, takes on the role of Dr. Tyrone Brower, a college researcher who ponders becoming a whistleblower when the drug he’s testing, supposedly the first nonaddictive painkiller, starts dispatching his mice. The rodents seemingly prefer the drug to cheese and starve to death. Just imagine if this elixir wound up on the shelves of your local Walmart. There’d be chaos and plummeting gorgonzola sales.
Inarguably, either one of the above tales would have supplied a solid premise for a feature, but a public-spirited ambition overruled that.
Clearly, it’s the final element of the Crisis saga that upends this offering. Armie Hammer here plays Jake Kelly, a taciturn undercover cop saddled with a drug-addicted sister (Lily-Rose Depp) with a 40% hearing loss in her right ear. Basically sporting one-pained expression throughout, Jake, when not traveling about in a trunk of a car, spouts clichéd dialogue with clichéd crooks. For example, after a drug courier named Cedric gets snagged in Canada while pulling a sled loaded with fentanyl towards the U.S. border, the following conversation occurs stateside:
Kelly: Jesus! How the fuck did that happen?
Crook: I don’t know how it happened, but apparently there’s a lot of anxiety bouncing around right now. . . . Should Cedric have an itch to name names . . .
Kelly: No, he’s not gonna name any fuckin’ names.
Crook: Good because that would be unpleasant for everyone.
Hammer is quite fine in a film without peaches. Here he glares with perfection, has an admirable posture, and seems to be quite ready for a Dirty Harry remake. In a film with a bigger budget, where his was the only saga being told, fans of heroes with stoic features and limited emotions would be lining up at the box office.
But Jarecki, as noted, has higher aims. He wants to display all of the cogs in the machine that gets drugs onto our streets and into our medicine cabinets: the innate corporate capacity for greed without shame and its end results. To accomplish that, Jarecki needed a miniseries. Who knows? Netflix might still bite.