Photo Courtesy of TIFF.

#TIFF23: “Pain Hustlers” is an American Horror Story That Struggles to Maintain Focus

Editor’s Note: This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labour of the actors and other creatives involved in the project(s) mentioned here, Pages and Pictures would not exist. Pages and Pictures stands firmly behind SAG-AFTRA members as they fight for fair labour conditions. 

Pain Hustlers is among the latest projects to try to tackle the opioid crisis with a story based on a truly wild cast of characters. While some characters may be amalgamated or exaggerated, this is based on a true story, specifically, “The Hard Sell” by Evan Hughs. While the chaos may be fun to watch a lot of the time, there’s an emotional resonance that’s missing from the story. This movie could have been a topical and authentic reflection on the opioid crisis, and how we got to where we are today.

As always, it makes sense to begin by looking at what works. This story captures disenfranchised, poor America. In particular, Liza Drake (Emily Blunt) is an illustration of the ambitions of so many in America to get rich quick and get out of the crushing poverty in which they live. As captivating as Blunt’s performance is as this character, the story struggles to maintain balance, making her overly sympathetic in light of her objectively terrible actions.

Liza Drake, as a character, is painted as an audience stand-in, and we’re asked to experience this story through her eyes. While this is an effective device to drum up sympathy for how someone could take this particular journey, there’s a lot left to be desired in how the story portrays this character’s choices. There’s too much effort spent trying to convince the audience that she is so desperate and hard done by that any actions, no matter how damaging to others, are acceptable. 

Through Pete Brenner (Chris Evans) and Jack Neel (Andy García), the movie effectively captures the cult-like vibes of these salespeople and how insidiously they contributed to the opioid epidemic. Watching so many people get sucked into this scheme is both alarming and shockingly unsurprising. Their villainy is deeply relatable because we collectively see it play out in our society every day when those with wealth and power try (and often succeed) in taking advantage of their fellow human beings. 

Unfortunately, Pain Hustlers misses a critical opportunity to centre stories of real people impacted by the opioid crisis that is still very much ongoing in the real world. While the story effectively captures the dichotomy of effective pain relief with how quickly addiction can take hold, there is much nuance in these stories that is missing. The snapshots of people impacted by the opioid crisis and of families left behind to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. The choice not to focus on these misses the point of any critique that could possibly be made in a fictionalized narrative. 

Additionally, there is a missed opportunity in this story, again, based on true events, to interrogate the role of the American healthcare system in this crisis. There are evidently larger systemic issues at play here. Although this movie portrays a very specific story of people who exacerbated the opioid crisis, these people did not and do not exist in a vacuum. These characters could have provided the venue to provide a broader critique of the system that has failed so many. 

Finally, from a character perspective, this movie criminally underuses the legendary Catherine O’Hara. Leaning into this character further could have heightened the emotional stakes and provided the unhinged comic relief that is needed at crucial moments. It’s not that her character could have been used to make light of a serious story. It’s that humor and chaos could have been used much more effectively, and there is no one more up to the task than O’Hara. 

Pain Hustlers could have been so much more than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, for its powerful and unhinged performances and veneer of a poignant narrative, it doesn’t quite come together. What could have been a necessary critique of a real-world issue devolves into platitudes and misplaced sympathies. Hopefully, this movie can at least pave the way for movies and TV shows to avoid common pitfalls when trying to portray this very real crisis. 

Pain Hustlers is in select theatres October 20, 2023, and streams on Netflix October 27, 2023.

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