American Pain: Film Review | Tribeca 2022
(3.5/5) A jaw-dropping example of just about everything wrong with America.
American Pain tells the story of Floridian twin brothers Chris and Jeff George, who together led the largest pain pill trafficking network in US history, and with many others, are responsible for ushering in the American Opioid Epidemic. Chris and Jeff are such absurd characters that they almost feel fictionalized, privileged troublemakers with criminal records that started in their childhoods, they are a pair of cold-blooded cons. They’re also white supremacists with no moral conscience and are about the most unlikeable documentary subjects ever. But nonetheless, the sheer evil we behold makes it a captivating, jaw-dropping journey. It plays out like a true-crime thriller, with a group of eccentric characters at play in varying shades of evil - it’s a story practically made to be a feature film one day. We follow the rise of the pill mill industry they created in Florida, complete with MRIs in strip club parking lots to swastika room decor, while simultaneously following law enforcement agents’ quest to take them down, which proved to be a supremely complex and difficult endeavor.
This documentary is bolstered by excellent archival materials, specifically in the form of phone call recordings and hidden camera footage inside the pain clinics, including a particularly chilling piece of footage of an actual “appointment” with one of the “doctors'' inside, showing what a ridiculous sham every part of these appointments for prescriptions were. From wire-tapping the phones to using undercover agents wearing hidden cameras, law enforcement had to go to great lengths to obtain evidence of the illegality taking place in these “pain clinics,” and I found the parallel structure of watching the rise of the pill mills while also following law enforcement’s behind the scenes work to catch them to be particularly fascinating. A scene of a news reporter filming them in the parking lot is followed by a phone recording via wire-tap of Jeff George and his wife furiously discussing how to get her off the property. Such extensive access to behind-the-scenes footage elevates the story from good to gripping.
This documentary has such a colorful and zany cast of characters outside of Jeff and George. From the Kentucky crew who took a school bus disguised as a church group to the pill mills to buy a ton and go back to Kentucky and sell them, to Parking Lot Pete, the MRI connoisseur, who was in charge of giving the pill mill patients their required MRI’s, in a strip club parking lot. The story writes itself - it’s that Tiger King brand of deep south insanity. But this story gets darker and darker, and we are frequently reminded that these people are profiting off the loss of human lives. At one point, we learn that about 10% of the people going to these pain clinics died, from overdoses or car accidents while under the influence. It’s incredible watching the investigators finally nail the George brothers, and then hearing the frantic and desperate phone call with Jeff George and his wife as she tells him the cops are at the house. It unfolds like a riveting crime thriller, but gradually we learn the extent of the George brothers’ evil, and I began to wish we shifted focus to the victims.
Towards the end, we catch up to the present day. While most of the people involved expressing some sort of regret and understanding of their responsibility for the loss of human lives, Chris George, now out of prison, is chillingly remorseless. He says it was the customers’ own fault for how they used the drugs and says he’s now planning his next business venture. The choice to interview Chris at the end and platform someone so vile felt like a bit of a misstep, and too much of an objective turn. When someone is this evil, subjectivity seems necessary, and I think that instead, there should have been more of a spotlight on the victims and personal accounts of the damage done. Still, this documentary is an utter thrill ride, a constantly shocking and deeply disturbing portrait of the American Opioid Epidemic.