Painkillers – David Yates’ entertaining crime drama about Big Pharma’s shady sales practices – begins with a character distinguishing his company’s misdeeds from a well-known pharmaceutical titan: “We are not Purdue Pharma. We didn’t kill America.” Sure, the employees of Zanna Therapeutics, a fictional pharmaceutical company, didn’t sell their opioid painkiller at the same rate as Purdue, but that doesn’t make them any less guilty.
A flood of books, films and television programs have already exposed the greedy underpinnings of the American pharmaceutical industry. Patrick Radden Keefe’s book Kingdom of pain and Laura Poitras’ documentary All the beauty and the bloodshed tackled the Sacklers and captured the impact of the philanthropic family’s decision-making. The miniseries Dope sick, based on Beth Macy’s book of the same name, dramatized the manipulation of the Purdue clan. And Alex Gibney’s two-part documentary The crime of the century presented a damning story about both families’ contributions to the opioid epidemic and looked at lnsys Therapeutics’ commercialization of fentanyl.
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Strengthened by committed performance.
Evan Hughes’ adaptation The tough sell: Crime and punishment at an opioid startup, Yates is a fast-paced, fast-talking feature that puts Insys (the loose inspiration for Zanna) back in the spotlight. The startup’s employees, including eccentric billionaire founder John Kapoor, were charged with racketeering in 2019. The case was pivotal in the federal government’s attempt to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for their contributions to overdose deaths. But at its height, Insys was also a fascinating study in how a non-entity could become a major player through the use of institutionalized practices. It proved that the system was designed to reward pharmaceutical companies and doctors at the expense of patients.
A cold opening is created Painkiller‘s framework. Zanna’s convicted employees are interviewed by an invisible director for a documentary about the company. Fragments of these conversations – filmed in black and white – appear everywhere Painkillers, which she uses to contextualize actions in the main story. When asked how the startup, which was initially on the brink of failure, became a pharmaceutical colossus within a few months, the subjects mention one name: Liza Drake.
Emily Blunt plays the single mother who quickly climbed the corporate ladder after convincing a major pain management doctor (Brian d’Arcy James) to prescribe Zanna’s pain medication instead of a rival pharmaceutical company. But before she helped Zanna earn millions of dollars, Liza struggled to earn a living wage. We meet this determined character, a woman with deceptive eyes and a vaguely Southern drawl, as she argues on the phone with her ex-husband about their daughter Phoebe (Chloe Coleman). Before she can fully fly into a rage, Liza hangs up the phone and walks with cool determination into a strip club in Florida, where she works as a dancer.
It is unclear how long Liza has been working at the club, but the job is not a good fit for the club. There is a compelling scene in which Yates and editor Mark Day move – with increasing speed – between images of an overwhelmed Liza clumsily handling the pole and another dancer twisting her body gracefully and precisely around the metal bar. Painkillers is filled with compelling flashes like this, where story, performance and technology harmonize exceptionally well. They’re glimpses of the power the film, with its well of spirited and convincing performances, could have harnessed with a tighter focus.
Blunt is mainly involved as Liza, a high school dropout who meets Pete Brenner (Chris Evans, fully fulfilling his role as a morally dubious salesman) at the strip club that evening. Their conversation reveals Liza’s cunning perception and ability to maneuver a situation to her advantage. Impressed and attracted to her, Pete offers Liza a job as a sales representative at Zanna. He doesn’t tell her that the company is on the brink of failure, but that wouldn’t have mattered to Liza, who moves into a run-down motel with her daughter shortly after their conversation.
The first act of Painkillers describes Liza’s ascent and is similar in structure to Adam McKay’s The big short one with its dramatic still images and close-ups. Yates collaborates with Fantastic Beasts: Dumbledore’s Secrets cinematographer George Richmond again to recreate the dizzying high of Zanna closing a crucial deal and Liza moving into a different tax bracket. Voiceovers – most of them from Blunt – add background information, explaining how Pete and Liza worked together to bribe doctors into prescribing their medicine.
Soon they will be recruiting practitioners in the Southeast and raking in millions of dollars. Liza hires her mother (Catherine O’Hara), who quickly becomes a burden. The relationship between mother and daughter is captured in a handful of poignant scenes, but some feel too untouched to have the desired impact.
Zanna’s success opens up new levels of greed, and soon their CEO Jack Neel (Andy Garcia) begins pressuring Liza and Pete to get doctors to write prescriptions for minor pain treatment instead of for cancer patients. Liza, who has been on board until now, begins to doubt the company’s goals. Despite Blunt’s moving performance, the shift between Liza’s own desire to make a quick buck and her change of heart comes across as too abrupt to buy.
That awkwardness between dominance and deserved reward also means that Painkillers not quite reaching its full emotional peak yet. The film returns to the documentary frame, pausing the story to give each character – including patients whose lives were changed by Zanna and their doctors’ malpractice – a chance to tell their story. In theory, these moments allow viewers to acknowledge the epidemic’s toll, but in practice they risk dividing attention.
Painkillers is strongest when it focuses on Liza and charts her tangled web of desire and integrity. In a landscape of stories about a manufactured crisis, its victims, and its malign actors, the perspective of the middlemen, those trying to survive in a country with a crumbling support system, is a compelling thread worth exploring. It asks an uncomfortable and urgent question: How many of us would jump at an opportunity to change our lives, knowing that deep down the cost could be fatal?