The latest from writer/director John Swab (Run with the Hunted), Body Brokers opens with a statement about the Affordable Care Act made in the law that health insurance companies must cover drug rehab and recovery programs. This coverage requirement resulted in the creation of a cottage industry dependent on addicts never actually recovering and instead being recycled through clinic after clinic, making these very expensive recovery centers and those who locate and deliver patients to their doors very rich in the process. Part education film, part personal drama, Body Brokers tells the story of Utah (Jack Kilmer) and his journey from being a junkie on the streets of Ohio to a recovery center patient in Los Angeles to an actual body broker himself, making tens of thousands just locating junkies and pushing them through the revolving door of recovery centers.
In Ohio, Utah and girlfriend Opal (Alice Englert) are leading rough lives when they are befriended, seemingly by chance, by a kind stranger named Wood (Michael Kenneth Williams), who eventually offers them a free trip to L.A. to enter a drug-rehab facility. It comes across as too good to be true, and Opal passes on going, but Utah actually has dreams of doing something more with his life, leading him to accept. Once in L.A., he is treated like gold by the staff, which includes a kindly intake tech named May (Jessica Rothe) and the head doctor (Melissa Leo). After about a month, Utah feels ready to leave, and Wood stays in touch with him, checking in and even offering him work after his stay. He sees something in Utah that feels personable and promising. What he needs is someone that knows the streets and is able to recruit young addicts into various programs, taking a kickback in the process—namely from a program designed and run by Vin (Frank Grillo). Along with Wood, Vin takes Utah under his wing and shows him how the other half lives, and how he can, too, if he plays his cards right.
It’s a fascinating profile of lifestyle seduction, where Utah is almost overwhelmed with images of how his life could be—and eventually becomes—to the point where resistance is pointless. But he’s also haunted by visions from his life in Ohio with Opal, who eventually is coaxed to move to L.A. herself, though she doesn’t have the same experience as Utah. Body Brokers doesn’t get lost in the details of how this scheme works but you still have a pretty good idea what’s happening and how money is made. There’s some nice supporting work by the likes of Owen Campbell as lifer junkie Sid, who basically sees moving in and out of rehab as a career choice, and the great character actor Peter Greene as a doctor who implants addicts with a chemical that kills their desire to take certain drugs. He gets paid per implant and then eventually takes them out secretly so the patient can be implanted again later for more money. You’d almost be impressed by the simplicity of the scam if it weren’t tantamount to highway robbery.
Utah and May begin a really sweet relationship that seems to strengthen them both, but when the law begins to rear its head, the pressure for Utah to keep his mouth shut mounts and actual crimes become part of the operation, forcing him to retreat to Ohio for a short period to hide out. As much as Body Brokers shows us that the high life that can be had by doing such work, the resulting film feels more like a melancholic cautionary tale, which is where it needs to exist. Kilmer’s performance is a bit of a dead fish, but that didn’t stop me from rooting for him to make it out of this life alive and get straight. The film does an admirable job pulling us in and making us care, even though we know there are only so many ways for this story to end. Still, it’s a solid effort from all involved.
The film is out today in theaters and streaming via VOD.
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