Producers: Cassian Elwes and Nicolas Jarecki Director: Nicholas Jarecki Screenplay: Nicholas Jarecki Cast: Gary Oldman, Armie Hammer, Evangeline Lilly, Greg Kinnear, Michelle Rodriguez, Luke Evans, Veronica Ferres, Lily-Rose Depp, Guy Nadon, Scott Mescudi (aka Kid Cudi), Michael Aronov, Éric Bruneau, Duke Nicholson, Indira Varma, Martin Donovan, Mia Kirshner and Nicholas Jarecki Distributor: Quiver Distribution
Twenty years ago Steven Soderbergh won an Oscar for his direction of “Traffic,” the intricate tale of the drug trade along the southern border, told through interlocking storylines. In his second feature Nicholas Jarecki attempts a similar feat, except in this case the traffic is in opioids across the border with Canada. But while undeniably serious and high-minded, the movie is more schematic than dramatic, lacking the sustained power and urgency such a story demands.
Two of the three plot threads are, in the end, linked. One deals with undercover agent Jake Kelly (Armie Hammer), who has established a working relationship with a gang of Armenian drug lords on this side of the border and pill producers in Montreal, headed by a kingpin called Mother (Guy Nadon), who specialize in fentanyl. Jake and his partner Foster, played by Jarecki himself, aim to lure the two groups into collaboration to bring both down in a single bust, though Garrett (Michelle Rodriguez), their supervisor, questions the tactic of setting up pill mills to prove their bona fides. For Kelly the mission is personal as well as professional, since his sister Emmie (Lily-Rose Depp) is an addict who’s resisting his efforts to get her off the stuff.
The second plotline centers on Claire Reimann (Evangeline Lilly), a recovered addict in Detroit, whose son David (Billy Bryk) dies of what the cops are quick to label an accidental overdose. She’s adamant that he wasn’t a user and starts her own investigation, hiring a private detective who connects the dots with absurd ease. It turns out that the boy’s death has a tenuous connection with the botched attempt by Mother to smuggle pills across the snowy wilds into the U.S. that opens the picture with a hoped-for, but unrealized, bang. That also leads the Canadians to suspect that there’s a mole in their midst, which makes Mother leery of Jake.
The third narrative line is pitched around FDA approval of legal but potentially lethal painkillers like Oxycontin. Gary Oldman plays Tyrone Bower, a professor at an unnamed college hired by big pharmaceutical company executive Bill Simon (Luke Evans) to do testing on their new formulation, Klaralon, which they claim is just as effective but far less addictive. When the tests show those claims to be false, Bower is torn between feeling bound by his non-disclosure agreement with the company and forwarding the data to the FDA through its principled agent Ben Walker (Scott Mescudi). His dilemma is exacerbated when Simon offers a substantial bribe to support his lab, and threatens to publicize an old sexual harassment against him—inducing the university’s Dean Talbot (Greg Kinnear) to be much less supportive of his old friend than he initially was.
Jarecki and his editor Duff Smith manage to shuffle together these three threads fairly well, though without ideal smoothness or energy. The rest of the technical team, including production designer Jean Carriere and cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc, do their jobs adequately, and the score by Raphael Reed is okay.
But the acting isn’t particularly strong, despite a fine cast, most of whom are hobbled by the sketchy characterizations. Hammer does a stiff tough-guy routine, bringing little shading to Kelly, and while Lilly is better, after David’s death Claire is essentially a one-note woman, quivering but determined. (The culminating meeting of the two borders on the absurd.) Oldman, who’s pretty much on his own, acts up a storm, but Bower is a figure whose naiveté, given the fact that he’s been in bed with Big Pharma for years, is simply incredible, and no amount of heavy histrionics can make it less so. The rest of the ensemble are pretty much going through the motions, though Nadon’s sneering menace is notable, in a Snidely Whiplash sort of way.
The continuing opioid epidemic is national crisis, and the complicity of companies like Purdue Pharma and their academic enablers in it contemptible. Jarecki’s film, unhappily, is too much a by-the-numbers exercise to provoke the sense of outrage it should.