Telling the Truth is a Revolutionary Act: Painkiller (2021) - Reviewed



The opioid crisis in the United states is ongoing with upwards of 50,000 people dying a year from overdoses. In the late '90s opioids became over-prescribed for pain management and it wasn't until after the deaths started ramping up that investigations into the matter showed that these drugs were indeed highly addictive with a significant percentage of patients (21%-29%) misusing them. 

Unfortunately, due to the way our health coverage is in the US, alternate methods of pain management such as massage, acupuncture, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are not often covered by insurance. One accident can put someone in a situation where they have to deal with chronic main and these drugs can put them into the position where they become addicted. Painkiller (2021) is a revenge thriller in the vein of The Punisher and Death Wish that pits a single man against the corrupt medical system as he violently takes out those who have exploited it.



Painkiller follows Bill Johnson (Bill Oberst Jr.) a podcaster who has lost his daughter due to a drug overdose, and spends his time trying to expose the seedy underbelly of the local medical community on his radio show. When his words don't seem to have much of an impact, he takes matters into his own hands. Bill (after donning a creepy mask) starts to methodically hunt down and kill the various doctors, drug dealers, and pharmacy owners who have either directly or indirectly contributed to the deaths of people in his community. He eventually is nick-named Six-Shooter for his penchant to empty his gun into the body of every victim.

Oberst Jr. is fantastic in this and gives the film a passionate and angry center for the narrative to coalesce around. His craggy weathered features are simultaneously intimidating and soulful and he plays his morally grey character with nuance. I found the scenes featuring his podcast segments to lean too heavily into exposition dump territory--it's hard to get the background information about opioid abuse out there, but more "show-don't-tell" would have made for smoother pacing. This is mostly in the first act, however, once the action starts going it's smooth sailing after that. The cinematography and musical score are excellent with special attention paid to lighting and atmosphere. Director Mark Savage always focuses a lot on his outdoor environments and they are often just as much a character as the people.


The main antagonist in Painkiller is Dr. Rhodes (Michael Pare) a doctor so morally bankrupt that he's giving out pills like candy for blowjobs in his office. Pare is definitely hamming it up and his performance gives the film that exploitative spice that previous revenge films have enjoyed. His slimy persona is a great contrast to the calm and calculated Six-Shooter and it's a blast to see them interact with each other.

Painkiller is a great throwback style revenge-thriller that tackles the pervasive and deadly prescription drug industry that has infected the most vulnerable among us.

--Michelle Kisner