'Body Brokers' is easy to intellectually decipher but too inept to provoke its desired emotional responses.
- Appropriately righteous anger against the addiction recovery industry.
- Great performances from most of the cast.
- It's trying to tell the story in two tonally dissonant ways.
- Jack Kilmer is a limp lead.
Body Brokers is the kind of movie that you wish was better because it’s very easy to see its potential. There’s a raw emotion to its portrayal of drug addiction and a tangible anger toward the addiction treatment industry that permeates through the film, and during its best moments that empathy gives way to some powerfully impactful moments. However, Body Brokers is a film divided against itself, trying to tell two tonally disparate kinds of stories without entirely succeeding at either.
The film opens on Utah (Jack Kilmer) and his girlfriend Opal (Alice Englert) robbing an Ohio convenience store in order to fund their next dose of heroin. They get away and happen upon a kindly stranger named Wood (Michael Kenneth Williams), who buys them both burgers and offers them a path to recovery by flying out to California to enter a live-in program. Opal skeptically refuses Wood’s help, but Utah can’t shake the feeling that he should move on from this self-destructive cycle, so he takes up Wood’s offer and enters recovery.
The main thrust of the film is less about Utah’s actual recovery from addiction – which finds him without cravings mere days after detoxing – but instead focuses on Utah coming under the wing of Wood as a so-called body broker, someone who shuffles addicts into treatment centers on a continually rotating basis while receiving a kickback from the centers themselves. It’s a rags to riches story that really wants to sell you on how hollow the material benefits of gaming the healthcare system are, but it never quite rises to the occasion of being actively critical of the wealth and success Utah achieves.
This is partially due to Kilmer’s acting, which is just not subtly expressive enough to show the demons haunting Utah while he reaps the rewards of his shady dealings, especially when he has to share scenes with the infinitely more talented Michael Kenneth Williams. Yet the even bigger issue lies in the film’s failure to make the wealth and success seem like a moral failing for Utah, even though the story’s trajectory and ending clearly want you to think that’s the case. If there are external consequences to Utah and Wood getting wealthy off a legalized insurance scam, they aren’t unjustified as the film never positions the viewer in any position other than on Utah’s side. And if the consequences are internal, weighing on Utah’s soul, we just aren’t given enough of a window into Utah’s internal life to be on that same emotional wavelength.
This dour meditation only becomes further muddied as the film abruptly and jarringly cuts to jaunty expository narration from Frank Grillo explaining the nuances of the Affordable Care Act and the exploitable profits made from the body broker trade. I’m sure this gleeful juxtaposition is meant to be intentional, but if writer-director John Swab wanted to make a hyper-stylized riff on The Big Short, that’s the style of film that should have been committed to from beginning to end, not in brief spurts to fill the gaps in a somber character study. It simply creates too much tonal whiplash to remain compelling and actively hampers engagement with Utah’s struggles.
This isn’t to say that Body Brokers is devoid of value. For all its faults, it does communicate its disdain for the addiction recovery industry and is remarkably educational in doing so, even if it does border on being outright dismissive of the positive impacts of the ACA. It also features some great performance work, including the aforementioned Michael Kenneth Williams as a look into Utah’s potential future, Jessica Rothe as a sober love interest who keeps Utah grounded, Frank Grillo as the shady owner of the recovery facility franchise, and Peter Greene as an appropriately skeevy surgeon who represents the worst of the health care profession. However, for as much as these pieces work individually, they don’t add up to a cohesive whole. Instead, the film is a theoretical amalgam, easy to intellectually decipher the empathetic responses it wants to provoke but too inept to actually make them happen. For as important as its raison d’etre is, that’s such a waste of good medicine.
Body Brokers releases on VOD on February 19, 2021.
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