At this point, it’s been well established that opioids are dangerously addictive and that pharmaceutical companies have acted in a predatory manner to prescribe as much medication as possible to make money. With Dopesick, Painkiller, and other films and TV shows about the run-up to the opioid crisis and its fallout, some may feel that there’s not much left to cover or learn. But David Yates‘ Pain Hustlers, which looks at one of the first major pain management drugs to flood the market, manages to tell its own story — however similar it may be — in a captivating and entertaining way, chronicling a rapid rise and spectacular fall.
Black-and-white interview footage at the start of the film reveals that there’s no happy ending to be found here, as Pete Brenner (Chris Evans) can’t quite make up his mind — would he rather see his former colleague Liza Drake (Emily Blunt) die in a plane crash, or a much more painful manner? Things between them are much warmer when they first meet, with drug rep Pete meeting Liza at a strip club and offering her a job.
Equally desperate and creative, Liza takes him up on his astounding offer, and she quickly comes up with a way to turn his flailing company around by enlisting a doctor to prescribe their pain medication, which is much more effective than other drugs on the market — and much more addictive, too. The sky is the limit from there, but, of course, it all has to come crashing down eventually.
Pain Hustlers is based on Evan Hughes‘ nonfiction book The Hard Sell, which follows the company Insys Therapeutics and its drug Subsys. It doesn’t take long for Liza to get caught up in the material trappings that her job as a drug rep provides, and though she insists that she’ll bring in oversight to ensure compliance on legally questionable speaker programs after the company goes public, it proves to be an empty promise. Things spiral out of control, and the company, run by Jack Neel (Andy Garcia), starts to push its doctors to prescribe its cancer drug for other, less serious ailments that are well beyond its approved scope, including migraines.
It doesn’t matter whether the details are rooted in truth since the message is the same — taking shortcuts to success while turning a blind eye to major problems can have serious consequences in the real world, where the difference between life and death can be a few milligrams.
Blunt, who has already garnered Oscar buzz for her supporting turn in Oppenheimer, delivers a performance that couldn’t be more different from her work in that film. While Liza’s circumstances are far from ideal at the start, she has a way of talking herself out of — or into — any situation. Blunt compellingly conveys the character’s outward confidence as well as the inner doubt that she must push down, and watching her come to terms with the impact of what she has helped to build demonstrates her range.
Likewise, Evans is fiery, energetic, and much less likable than usual — a noble sacrifice he made for this film — and the supporting cast includes memorable turns from Brian d’Arcy James as Liza’s key doctor, Catherine O’Hara as her mother, and Garcia as the drug company’s eccentric founder.
As with any film that follows a rollercoaster narrative, audiences should expect major tonal shifts, which are well-handled and paced throughout. When things are great, Pain Hustlers is a lot of fun, and when they get bad, it’s reflected in the mood of the scene. The downward spiral by the film’s end frames its earlier events in a different light, assigning a deep sense of irresponsibility to the freewheeling actions of its protagonists.
Even if audiences don’t encounter any surprises or new information, this film knows how to tell its story well. Experiencing its lighter moments in a theater is worthwhile, but it should play just as well on smaller screens when it arrives on Netflix next month.
Pain Hustlers had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and will be released in select theaters on Oct. 20 before streaming Oct. 27 on Netflix.