The new David Yates drama, Pain Hustlers, has taken Netflix by storm within a week of landing on the streaming platform. Yet another drama based on the opioid crisis in America, Pain Hustlers has people curious how much of it is based on a true story and how much has been fictionalised.
Directed by BAFTA award-winning filmmaker Yates, the film stars Emily Blunt as Liza Drake, a struggling single mother whose life takes an unexpected turn when she crosses paths with pharmaceutical representative Pete Brenner, portrayed by Chris Evans. As Liza delves deeper into the world of the pharmaceutical industry, she finds herself entangled in a vast racketeering conspiracy.
Pain Hustlers debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11th, 2023, and later hit select US theatres on October 20th, followed by a Netflix release on October 27th, 2023.
Critical reception for the film was predominantly unfavourable. While the film takes creative liberties to enhance its storytelling, it also borrows from reality.
The true story behind Pain Hustlers
Pain Hustlers is indeed inspired by real events. The film draws its inspiration from the dark saga of Insys Therapeutics, a pharmaceutical company notorious for its sale of a liquid opioid called Subsys. This highly addictive opioid contained fentanyl and was initially intended for use in alleviating pain in cancer patients.
Insys Therapeutics became infamous for its unethical practices, as revealed in the New York Times article Pain Hustlers, authored by journalist Evan Hughes. Much like the story we see unfold in Dopedick, doctors were effectively bribed to prescribe Subsys, often to patients who did not medically require it.
The company initiated a “speaker program” that incentivised medical practitioners to promote the product to their colleagues. Their actions resulted in thousands of deaths, with over 7,000 reported cases of individuals who had taken Subsys without having cancer and more than a third of the 47,000 opioid-related deaths reported in 2017 being linked to prescription medications, as per ABC News.
The film’s screenwriter, Wells Tower, was drawn to this story instantly. Tower stated, “I was just astounded by this incredible story. I found it mind-blowing that these people, who, for the most part, have no medical training, have so much influence over the medications we’re prescribed. And they have this influence because they’re bribing doctors to prescribe medications, in this case, fentanyl, even to patients who don’t need it.”
While these events inspired Pain Hustlers, it is definitely mostly driven by drama. The characters in the film are not based on real people, and the names of the pharmaceutical company and the drug have been altered. Zanna, the fictitious pharmaceutical company in the movie, mirrors Insys Therapeutics and its founder, John Kapoor, who was convicted of racketeering to boost the company’s profits. However, in the film, Zanna is owned by Jack Neal, and the opioid Lonafin, although fictional, closely resembles the real Subsys.
Pain Hustlers has been criticised for trying to pull off a Wolf of Wall Street, even though the same treatment to the Sackler family’s impact on the opioid crisis in Painkiller met with the same disappointment.