‘Pain Hustlers’ on Netflix Shows Dark Side of Big Pharma

Opioids and the corruption of Big Pharma wreak havoc for the characters of Pain Hustlers on Netflix.
Pain Hustlers
Courtesy Netflix

Big Pharma and the devastation it causes with opioids is the topic of a new film starring Emily Blunt, Chris Evans, Andy Garcia, Catherine O’Hara, Jay Duplass, Brian d’Arcy James, and Chloe Coleman debuting Oct. 27 on Netflix. Pain Hustlers, a new film directed by BAFTA award winner David Yates, follows a mother who gets entangled with a failing pharmaceutical startup and the addiction it leads to. 

Netflix reports that Liza Drake, played by Blunt (Oppenheimer, Edge of Tomorrow), is a humble single mom who just lost her job and is in a tight position with few options. She meets pharmaceutical salesman Pete Brenner played by Evans (Captain America) who brings her into a dark world of racketeering and opioids.

Complicating the matter is her “increasingly unhinged boss” played by Garcia (Godfather III), the declining health of her daughter played by Coleman (65), and the realization of the true scope of devastation wrought on families by painkillers.

“From the very first minute of talking to Emily I knew we’d found our Liza Drake,” Yates told Netflix earlier this year. “Emily was inspired by the character and the world, and along with Chris shared our vision of realizing a film that was both entertaining yet had some serious and thought-provoking things to say about the opioid crisis.”

A big factor in the show is the guilt people who work in the pharmaceutical industry might feel.  There’s a reason for it: The CDC says there were 80,411 overdose deaths in 2021—75.4% of all drug overdose deaths involved opioids, with 88% of opioid overdoses being synthetic. So given these numbers, you should be more worried about pharmaceutical abuse than street heroin. That means opioids killed more Americans—during 2021 alone—than the Vietnam War.

“I was intrigued by the pharma world, particularly the low-rent end of it, the workaday reps and sales teams striving to make a living in a hugely competitive business of dealing with people’’s pain,” Yates said of the film. “I loved the characters [screenwriter Wells Tower] was creating on the page, and his writing.”

Netflix acquired global rights to the film, which was written by Wells Tower for $50 million, arranged at the Cannes Film Festival. 

“Emily was probably the most prepared actor I’ve ever worked with,” Yates said. “She comes to set with a game plan every single day and knows exactly what she wants to explore in the architecture of the human being that she’s playing.” 

Yates chose Evans for his ability to play a protagonist heroically.  “Casting Chris Evans for that was a delight because his clean-cut, alpha male, heroic demeanor is completely turned on its head when you cast him as a sleazebag pharma sales rep,” he said. “I’d seen him do a couple of things that really surprised me previously. I love seeing an actor do something surprising.”

The Opioid Crisis and Streaming Video

Big Pharma means big bucks for streaming platforms. This comes in the forms of both documentaries and drama.

The Pharmacist debuted in 2020 on Netflix, a docuseries that follows a Louisiana pharmacist who takes extreme measures to expose the “rampant corruption behind the opioid addiction crisis.”

There is a flood of other popular opioid-themed shows: Netflix’s 2023 drama series Painkiller starring Matthew Broderick, Uzo Aduba, Taylor Kitsch and West Duchovny briefly took the top spot on the platform. 

Netflix reports that Painkiller has two sources, the 2003 book Pain Killer by Barry Meier and the 2017 New Yorker article, “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain” by Patrick Radden Keefe, which was later expanded into Keefe’s 2021 book Empire of Pain.  “Barry Meier saw this coming a long time ago as a reporter for The New York Times and his 2003 book became required reading in understanding the epidemic,” Newman (Narcos, Narcos: Mexico, Griselda) told Netflix during production. “Keefe’s article about the Sackler family,  specifically about their role in the crisis, was a touchstone for us as well. Having them as consultants and producers, along with the legendary Alex Gibney, has been invaluable—as was the work and the amazing reporting they had done.” Or as Harpster simply puts it, “They’re just walking encyclopedias on the Sacklers and the opioid crisis.”

Netflix isn’t the only platform banking on Big Pharma. Hulu’s hit 2021 opioid-crisis series Dopesick stars Michael Keaton, Rosario Dawson, and Peter Sarsgaard. Dopesick asks hard questions such as whether or not Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family are responsible for their roles in the opioid crisis.

The Sackler family’s private company Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin® in 1996—ushering a new era of powerful painkillers. Documents made public last year show how Purdue Pharma actively pushed for more prescriptions of painkillers.

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