TIFF 2023: Pain Hustlers Adds Nothing New to the Opioid Crisis Narrative

13 October 2023 / by Nicole. Soroka
Pain Hustlers TIFF 2023
TIFF 2023: Pain Hustlers Adds Nothing New to the Opioid Crisis Narrative
This crime drama is a dim portrayal of how the rich get richer and the poor remain powerless

It’s difficult to root for characters who only have one goal in mind: to make as much dirty money as they can, no matter the means. However, it’s a whole new game when one single mother finds herself in the fight of her life, protecting and caring for her young, sick daughter. 


Pain Hustlers stars Emily Blunt, Chris Evans, Andy García and Catherine O’Hara. Directed by David Yates, this film is one of the few pieces of work from Yates outside of the Harry Potter/Fantastic Beasts universe. 


Pain Hustlers is based on Evan Hughes’ 2018 work in the New York Times Magazine and his 2022 novel, The Hard Sell. The film itself revolves around the opioid crisis and the epidemic of under-the-table pharmaceutical drug sales. 


The film first premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, where critics gave the movie a 23 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes


Pain Hustlers introduces Liza Drake (Blunt), a dancer at a local club who has an interesting run-in with pharmaceutical representative Pete Brenner (Evans). When Liza peaks Pete’s interest, he offers her a base-level job as a sales rep. Without many other options on the table, and a growing concern for her young daughter’s health, Liza decides to take Pete up on the deal. What Liza doesn’t know of is the illegal activity and its emotional toll she would soon entangle herself in to earn the big bucks. 


Pain Hustlers is a surface-level film, one that attempts to cover the opioid crisis on a large scale but ultimately fails to showcase one climatic event within the movie. While the beginning peaks interest, the remainder of the film shows the unravelling of Liza Drake’s life in an anti-climatic manner. One spiral after the next, it almost feels as though the movie is circling itself without a destination in sight. The concept is interesting in the sense that it represents the reality of the opioid epidemic in a thought-provoking question; does your doctor care more about fast relief of your pain or fast cash off your pain? However, it felt as though something was missing from the movie, with the middle of the film feeling aimless and empty. 


Blunt delivers an exceptional performance, portraying a high school dropout who ultimately cares about the wellbeing of her daughter. Her actions reflect the worry and fear she has towards her daughter’s declining health, which may explain how she thought her job was truly helping sick patients. She felt empathy towards the ill when she believed to be helping them with her new drug, and again when she saw how their drug was tearing lives apart. The rest of the performances feel mediocre in comparison, which may be due to the characters lack of story or likeability. 


One confusing element within this film are the discrepancies throughout the storyline. Liza has a wardrobe full of formal business wear attire, even before she begins scoring big time at work. For a woman living in her sister’s home, struggling to get by for her daughter, she sure dresses to the nines. Liza also mentions her daughter’s father multiple times throughout the film, with him trying to coax Liza into bringing her to live with him. However, when her health takes a turn for the worse, neither the father’s presence nor financial aid are anywhere to be seen. For someone who was up in arms about Liza’s parenting style, it does not make much sense that he did not at least offer to pitch in for the medical bills. 


Overall, Pain Hustlers delivers basic information about the opioid crisis and can serve as beneficial education for those wanting to learn more. As for the entertainment factor, the film is dry but may offer an interesting watch for anyone who is specifically interested in the drug epidemic and the illegal works of pharmaceutical representatives. It leaves audiences with an interesting feeling as to how far their doctor will go to get the most out of their pain. 


You can catch Pain Hustlers on Netflix, streaming October 27.