The Crime of the Century | reviewed by Miles David Moore | Scene4 Magazine | August 2021 | www.scene4.com

Life and Death in America
The Crime of the Century, Mare of Easttown

Miles David Moore

A few months ago I reviewed Hillbilly Elegy, Ron Howard's film of J.D. Vance's memoir of growing up poor in Kentucky and Ohio.  I was kinder to it than most critics, but—being human—I probably would have been less kind if I had known then of Vance's remaking of himself into a Trumpite senatorial candidate.  My point here, however, is that I thought Howard's film worked well as the story of a dysfunctional family, but not as a consideration of rural or small-town poverty.  To have accomplished the latter, I said, he would have had to make a documentary or a miniseries.

Since then, HBOMax has released a documentary. Alex Gibney's The Crime of the Century, and a miniseries, Craig Zobel's Mare of Easttown, that suggest what Hillbilly Elegy might have been.  Neither is cheerful viewing, but both are superb.  The Crime of the Century will enrage you; Mare of Easttown will fascinate and move you, and has a final message of hope that feels entirely earned.

The Crime of the Century—co-produced by the Washington Post, which published the original stories on which the film is based--begins grimly, with emergency medical technicians responding to a young man's death by opioid overdose.  Gibney then switches to a series of billboards and road signs that convey the film's message.  More than 500,000 people have died of opioid overdoses since 2000, the signs tell us.  "But a crisis is not something that just happens," they say.  "What if, behind the crisis, there was a spectacular crime?"

Gibney spends the next four hours delineating that crime as a conspiracy between drug cartels, greedy pharmaceutical companies, and corrupt doctors and government officials.  He divides the documentary into two parts—the first covering the Sackler family, owners of Oxycontin manufacturer Purdue Pharma, and the second considering pharmaceutical investor John Kapoor, former CEO of fentanyl manufacturer Insys Therapeutics. 

He also calls on a formidable group of witnesses, including investigative reporters Scott Higham, Sari Hurwitz, Patrick Radden Keefe and Barry Meier; Joseph Rannazzisi, a former Drug Enforcement Agency official who came to grief with his superiors over his zealous pursuit of drug company executives; Art Van Zee, a family doctor in southwest Virginia who led a one-man war against opioid addiction; and Alec Burlakoff, former vice president of sales operations for Insys, who tells how he made Subsys—a spray fentanyl 100 times more addictive than heroin—a must-have for pain patients across the U.S.


Members of the Sackler family declined to be interviewed for the film, which was a smart move on their part.  As Gibney and his witnesses tell us, the Sackler brothers—Raymond, Mortimer, and especially eldest brother Arthur—created the business model that ended up killing hundreds of thousands.  In the early 1950s the brothers, all medical doctors, purchased a small pharmaceutical company, Purdue Frederick, and a small medical advertising firm, McAdams.  Arthur Sackler, according to Keefe, transformed the landscape of how drugs are sold—and not for the good.  Shamelessly he advertised products such as Librium and Valium using endorsements from doctors who turned out not to exist.  "Sackler," Keefe tells us, "crossed the line from promotion to fraud."

Arthur Sackler died before Oxycontin was introduced, but his nephew Richard carried on the family tradition, according to the film.  When Oxycontin was submitted for Food and Drug Administration approval in 1994, Richard Sackler and his staff found a friendly FDA official, Curtis Wright, who orchestrated Oxycontin's approval as a non-addictive drug despite a total lack of data.  Then, Gibney tells us, Wright joined Purdue as an executive. 

Oxycontin, like fentanyl, was designed as a pain medication for terminal cancer patients, but the witnesses note that market is too small to guarantee a profit.  Purdue salesmen pitched Oxycontin to doctors as a treatment for common chronic pain, and by 2000 Oxycontin sales topped $1 billion a year.  They invented a term—"pseudoaddiction"—to account for the behavior of Oxycontin users who showed signs of addiction.  The treatment for pseudoaddiction was to increase the dose.

All of this provided a template for Kapoor and Burlakoff when they marketed Subsys.  According to Burlakoff, he always zeroed in on the doctors who treated their practices as businesses and their patients as customers, and he plied those doctors with junkets and expensive gifts.  Doctors who couldn't be enticed into prescribing opioids were shamed into it, according to Dr. Anna Lembke of the Stanford University School of Medicine.  "(You were told that) if you don't use this, you are a bad doctor," Lembke said. "You want your patients to suffer!"

And then the illegal opioid trade began…

The Crime of the Century is dense with medical history, legal and political skullduggery, and heartbreaking personal stories—far too much to recount here.  But the film will keep you both enthralled and infuriated throughout all four of its hours.  At least Kapoor and Burlakoff are in jail.  But Purdue paid only chump change in fines; no Purdue executives faced any jail time; and the Sacklers extracted more than $10 billion from the company before any penalties were paid.  The Sacklers are living their own special—one might say exclusionary--version of the American dream.

Easttown Township, Pa., is just outside Philadelphia.  As such, Mare of Easttown, a seven-episode miniseries created and written by Brad Ingelsby and directed by Zobel, does not fit the Appalachian purview of Hillbilly Elegy or much of The Crime of the Century.  But drugs play a major role in the story of Mare of Easttown, and in its larger scope the miniseries is consonant with the other films in that it portrays working-class Americans living in constant fear, anger, and tragedy. 


It is apparent from the beginning that Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet), the show's titular character, bears the weight of the world on her shoulders.  A detective with the Easttown Police Department, Mare faces increasing pressure from her superiors and from neighbor Dawn Bailey (Enid Graham) to find Dawn's daughter Katie, who has been missing for more than a year .  Mare has her own demons to deal with: her drug-addicted son Kevin has committed suicide, and Kevin's recovering addict girlfriend Carrie (Sosie Bacon), mother of Kevin's small son Drew (Izzy King), has filed suit seeking to regain custody of Drew from Mare.

The first episode shifts focus between Mare and Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny), a young woman whose life makes Mare's look paradisal.  Saddled with an out-of-wedlock baby, Erin lives with her abusive father Kenny (Patrick Murney) and is forced to deal with her worthless ex-boyfriend Dylan Hinchey (Jack Mulhern) and his nasty new girlfriend Brianna (Mackenzie Lansing).  Erin's life continues its resolute downward spiral until, at the end of the episode, her corpse is sprawled in the local river.

This is as much as I am comfortable telling you about the plot of Mare of Easttown.  There are any number of websites that discuss the story and characters in detail, including the many red herrings (or, as one critic called them, "Mare-ings") Zobel and Ingelsby introduce on the way to revealing Erin's murderer.  Those websites are fun if you have seen the show, but must be shunned at all costs if you haven't. 

The good thing about the red herrings is that they aren't a latter-day exercise in Murder, She Wrote-style gamesmanship.  All of them are based solidly on the most complex, richly imagined set of characters on any program since Mad Men.  The behavior of those characters may shock us, but it also moves us, and it never stirs our disbelief.  Sometimes their behavior is unexpectedly funny—such as when we discover that Mare's mother Helen (Jean Smart) hides her ice cream in an empty frozen-vegetables bag.


Above all, Zobel and Ingelsby remind us that Easttown is a small community, and all the suspects know each other—sometimes too well.  They make this apparent from the first scene, in which Mare answers a call from an elderly woman who feels threatened by a man prowling around her house.  Within a minute we learn that Mare knows both the old woman and the prowler—that she has, in fact, known them both all her life.  They are only two of a large group of Easttowners we meet, including Mare's ex -husband Frank (David Denman); her teenage daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice); her boss, Chief Carter (John Douglas Thompson); her best friend Lori Ross (Julianne Nicholson); Lori's husband John (Joe Tippett), brother-in-law Billy (Robbie Tann), and son Ryan (Cameron Mann); and Deacon Mark Burton (James McArdle), a priest the archdiocese moved to Easttown after accusations of sexual misconduct at his former parish.  Zobel and Ingelsby even give Mare two potential love interests: Richard Ryan (Guy Pearce), writer-in-residence at the local college, and Det. Colin Zabel (Evan Peters), a county detective brought in to help Mare with the Bailey and McMenamin cases. 

Zobel and Ingelsby lead the audience through a jaw-dropping series of events, including the sudden, violent death of one of the series' most lovable characters (no fair saying who, how, or when, though again you can find that information easily).  A motif runs throughout the story of otherwise good characters—including (especially) Mare herself—making stupid and cruel decisions out of desperation.  Yet there are also examples of unlikable characters showing unexpected decency and depth of feeling.  Even more, Mare of Easttown maintains a pervasive sense of community—a sense that these people, despite sinning against each other, also still love and support each other.  There are exceptions, of course, but again no fair citing them.  By the time one of the characters delivers a message of reconciliation, you get the feeling that Easttown was always more like Grovers Corners than Twin Peaks.  The town, which seemed from the beginning a place of darkness and decay, suddenly begins to look idyllic.


The cast of Mare of Easttown has been deservedly showered with praise, starting with Kate Winslet.  As Mare, Winslet projects the weariness of a good woman who has seen too much of the world's evils, and who has had to fight too much for what she once took for granted.  Her Pennsylvania accent is pitch-perfect, except for one unguarded word in one scene—"home"—which is pure Mayfair.

Among the rest of the cast, I was especially impressed by Nicholson, Smart, Peters, and Graham, all of whom pierced my heart in ways I will never forget.  Mare of Easttown is an unforgettable experience—a reminder that a down-and-dirty crime drama can still move you to the depth of your soul.

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Miles David Moore | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com
Miles David Moore is a Washington, D.C.reporter for Crain Communications, the author of three books of poetry and Scene4's Film Critic. For more of his reviews and articles, check the Archives.

©2021 Miles David Moore
©2021 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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