Prescription drugs have become a dangerous enterprise encompassing our world today. Dealing drugs has become a business that isn’t what shows like “Breaking Bad” makes you think it is. In actuality, it resides in the category of being an industry with a massive profit margin. On the flip side, you have the dangers that the ease of access to these drugs can entail. What The Young Turks produced The Oxy Kingpins understands is just how massive this industry is. It isn’t just the caricature of the “shady drug dealer” but the very people who decide what we need and when we need it.
First-time director Brendan Fitzgerald seamlessly condenses heavy material. Clocking in at a brisk 80 minutes, The Oxy Kingpins introduces us to dealers, lawyers, and the administrators making this happen. There’s such a wave of very palpable anger on display here from the filmmakers that it’s hard not to feel it yourself. Hearing the intricacies of this world requires a guide to walk us through it. You need someone who has both the smarts and the charm. Someone who can get you involved emotionally, which is certainly not an easy feat to accomplish. Enter the film’s judicial “cowboy” attorney Mike Papantonio, our gateway into this crazy world.
Having folks like Papantonio and a drug dealer who we simply know as Alex shows us an entirely new perspective. That perspective helps fuel the fire of emotions felt while watching. As Alex fills Papantonio in on how he ran his multimillion-dollar drug enterprise, the biggest detail is just how easy it was. Ease is something that let this business grow into the dangerous empire that it has. Fitzgerald knows this and allows us as an audience to see just how far the damage has gone, particularly in the damage that it has on users all over the world. The focus in this film is largely placed on impoverished counties, or, as Papantonio calls them, “areas of despair.”
Fitzgerald wisely plots the journey the audience takes by working from the top, down. The real emotionality of the piece comes from seeing how the ease of access affects users. We dive into the town of Mineral County, Nevada, where opioid doses are up to 3,100,000. This section of the film plays like something you’d see in a horror movie, not so much with gore or violence, but with the description of how these drugs ruin people’s lives. This comes through in a remark by a Mineral County citizen and user Anna, or, as the film describes “Anna, The Customer.” Her chilling words of ‘It creeps up on you and then turns you into a monster that would destroy all your being. And it eats you alive’ sent absolute chills down my spine. It shows the clever and difficult balance of tone that the film accomplishes.
Coming to this film knowing little to nothing about this drug pandemic, I found The Oxy Kingpins as an eye-opening experience. It’s definitely a difficult watch when Fitzgerald makes you realize and understand just how quickly this pandemic grew. Watching folks like Papantonio try to combat it allows the film to play like a David vs Goliath story. While it does follow multiple perspectives, the narrative of the little guy going up against a massive industry is quite compelling viewing. There’s no denying that certain aspects (the legality of it all) can be a bit confusing at times. This is very much the type of film that will reward you if you know of this pandemic going in. If you’re like me and do not, you’ll still be able to see the true horrors unfolding before you.
Screening at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival on March 16th, 2021.
Final Score. 4 out of 5.