Sure, you’ve seen those TV ads starring this or that “ex-addict” now running a tony drug rehabilitation facility. Maybe you’ve seen news stories on addiction and rehab for fun and profit. Perhaps you caught the documentary American Relapse” from a couple of years back and you remember what “junkie hunters” are.
Here’s a feature film set in that unsavory “system,” a reminder that the opioid manufacturers and marketers, and the doctors who prescribed America into it’s “other” epidemic, aren’t the only ones making bank from our appetite for self-destruction.
“Body Brokers” is a drama set against that reporting, a film about good intentions twisted, raped and pillaged by the predatory. It’s about the Afford Care Act’s inclusion of drug rehab provisions, something meant to help deal with an already rampant opioid abuse crisis. And it’s about those who figured out how to game that system — get rich quick rehab owners, junkies paid to go into rehab, the “hunters” who recruit and pay off those addicts — and a world of good intentions, and government and insurance industry cash, flushed down the drain.
Writer-director John Swab (“Run With the Hunted”) delivers a B-movie with few surprises but plenty of good, solid punches at a mess that didn’t fix a problem, it just allowed a fresh field of predators to profit from it.
Utah and Opal are in masks when we first meet them, knocking over a Columbus, Ohio convenience store. She (Alice Englert of “Ginger & Rosa,” “Beautiful Creatures”) is the scarier of the two, the one who does most of the threatening, the one most eager to shoot up after the stick-up.
Utah (Jack Kilmer of “Palo Alto,” “Summer ’03,””The Nice Guys”) is just as addicted, but more along for the ride. That’s why he’s the one who listens when they’re offered a meal by the stranger they bum a cigarette from.
Wood, played with a streetwise charm by Michael Kenneth Williams (“The Wire,” “Red Sea Diving Resort,” “Lovecraft Country”), isn’t from some “church.” No, he’s not about charity. But he’s got a business card and a suggestion.
“Don’t wait to start the rest of your life.”
His promise of brokered rehab in California doesn’t distract Opal. But Utah has never seen the ocean. He doesn’t hear the cynical voice-over narration, a blizzard of numbers about start-up rehab centers. tens of thousands of “beds to fill,” and the money everybody on the consumer end of drug abuse can pick up just for offering to go and get clean.
New West Recovery has a kindly, supportive receptionist/nurse (Jennifer Rothe), group therapy and counseling from Dr. White (Oscar winner Melissa Leo) and hope.
“Just keep doing the right thing,” Wood urges, after checking in Utah. “One day at a time!”
Even people with little knowledge of three-act dramatic structure can smell where this is going. Yes, there’s good work going on inside those walls. Yes, somebody “else” is paying for it. And yes, a system set up life that is ripe for corruption.
So we’ll be served a first act of hope, a second act of success, and eye-opening revelations, and a third act when the corruption comes home to roost and the whole rotten system is exposed as the zero-sum game it has been twisted into.
Swab’s formulaic script allows the mind to drift just enough to weight the net value of such a system — SOME people are getting clean, getting better and getting out — before disabusing us of any notion about the odds working in society’s favor.
That’s the job of our testy, winking narrator, who happens to be the guy who set up New West just like a dozen other ex-addicts running rehab resorts we see advertised on TV. He happens to be played by the wonderful character actor Frank Grillo (“Hell on the Border,” “Point Blank,”TV’s “Kingdom” and “Billions”).
Vin has the comforting, “speaks your language” sales pitch of a fellow ex-addict, perfect for pep talks with every new group in his facility. But to his staff, to “foot soldier” junkie hunters/recruiters like Wood, he’s all about “keeping the beds filled and the money rolling in.”
Grillo’s Vin narrates the staggering numbers, the insane profits with plenty of room for payoffs, bribes and skimming, generated by this Rehab Industrial Complex.
The two main heavies — Vin and Wood — use the same words, “Do the math.” Vin is the one who narrates the car repair shop “thrive on repeat business” analogy. “Don’t do a good enough job” rehabilitating an addict, “they don’t come back. Do too GOOD of a job, they don’t come back either.
All the good intentions, the empathetic work of the women like May (Rothe) and Dr. White is for naught if their patients don’t have a support system, don’t join a twelve step group and listen to Wood’s offers of cash and sympathy — “You ready to come back, yet?”
Kilmer doesn’t give us much here that shows he’s a bit player ready to be a leading man. He seems to shrink in almost every scene he’s paired up with somebody else in, almost understandable considering most of his scenes are with Williams, Grillo, Rothe and Leo.
The predictable turns in the story have us a couple of steps ahead of the game, pretty much form the start. And any film built on narration this certain of its “answers” invites scrutiny and questioning its own agenda.
“Body Brokers” still manages to be a generally compelling, always-damning indictment of a system that is supposed to help, costs a fortune, and probably isn’t helping nearly as many as it should.
MPA Rating: R for strong drug content, pervasive language and some sexual content
Cast: Jack Kilmer, Kenneth Michael Williams, Frank Grillo, Alice Englert, Melissa Leo and Jessica Rothe
Credits: Scripted and directed by Jack Swab. A Voltage film, Vertical release.
Running time: 1:51