Film Review – Prescription Thugs
Prescription Thugs has its heart in the right place but suffers from an unwieldy narrative that moves from the personal to larger implications of prescription drug abuse while never making its case compelling. First this documentary acts as a sequel of sorts for director Chris Bell‘s Bigger Stronger Faster that deals with steroid use and his brother Mike Bell, a professional wrestler. Having not seen the previous film it took me a while to acclimate myself to what I was seeing and catch up to where we are with characters I have never met.
Even when I did get my bearings the film was already moving very slowly as we see Chris talking with his family about his brother Mike and his addiction issues and his psychological need to be better than an average person. The buildup lasts for a good long time until it becomes more and more clear that Mike must have passed away. As sad as this is it was clear very early that is where we were heading, and it was all build-up but no real shock. From here Chris tries to make comparisons about prescription drug use by talking to other other pro athletes including wrestlers his brother knew who talk about how easy it was for them to get drugs when they needed them and how they took over their lives, repeating a lot of the same stories that should have shown how pervasive the issue is but instead got monotonous before moving on to hearing about the drug companies themselves.
Saying that the drug companies are pushing more drugs onto us and are doing it only for the money is not that revolutionary of an idea. Chris does get into how the pharmaceutical companies are able to use ads to persuade us that we have symptoms of things we really do not have. Like restless leg syndrome, which really isn’t a disease at all. But it gets us thinking we have problems so that we get a pill that gives us a side effect that requires another pill and so on. This was the stuff that was news to me and made me want to know more about how the companies were doing this and what else they were up to. Yet then we would cut to director Chris Bell talking about his own problems with prescription drug abuse and those of his brother, and instead of it giving the issue weight it actually felt out of place.
The film would change in tone to more of a self-reflective look at why he got started on prescription drugs after surgery and yet there was a detachment from these events. Chris drops these reflections in randomly at one point and makes it seem as though it is a big confession–and it is–but then we move past it and lose any momentum about what it is prescription drugs have done to him and why he feels he needs them. Then the focus returns to the drug companies. It felt out of place narratively and, while there is a return to this storyline later that is a bit of a surprise at the end, it is there to shock rather than create an overall sense of what the film has been trying to get across.
We move from hearing about why pro athletes can easily get addicted to prescription drugs with their availability to them to learning about the companies and then director Chris Bell himself talking about his own issues. In some films this could have been a strong, well-rounded look at how these pieces fit together but too often it feels like three unfinished short films combined into a hodgepodge of potentially good ideas. Chris Bell never spends the time, or more importantly gives enough new information in these different segments, to really make this material stick, be it either horrifying us at the level these companies will go to make money, or trying to give us people to relate to (including himself).
These kind of documentaries are the “nice try” kind–you sense that they have the passion to tell something insightful about what is happening in this country and the great dangers that are all around us but have no way to make the issue resonate with the viewer. If Chris Bell had found a way to make the focus either about his own issues or really investigate the industry as a whole he may have had something.