Anti-Pharma Doc ‘Prescription Thugs’ Is Personal and Powerful, but It’s Not Quite Journalism


In his previous film, Bigger, Stronger, Faster, director Chris Bell documented the stories of his two brothers who became involved in the subculture of performance-enhancing drugs as they pursued their sporting ambitions. In Prescription Thugs, Bell struggles with the death of his brother Mike, who succumbed to his addiction to multiple prescription medications.

The film explores the deregulation of the pharmaceutical industry in the 1980s, resulting in a widespread culture of legal-drug dependency that really exists in no other country. Bell points out that OxyContin is so chemically similar to heroin that the molecules could be confused in a police lineup — opiates have been legitimized by a doctor’s prescription.

At one point, Bell successfully petitions legislators to act on the issue of Craigslist sales of pharmaceuticals. Among interviews with doctors, former pharmaceutical reps, athletes, and addicts from various walks of life, Bell commiserates with his family about their loss and reveals to his parents his own struggle with addictive painkillers in the aftermath of hip surgery.

It’s unusually confessional and often moving, but Bell’s film is unsatisfying as a piece of documentary journalism. He comments ironically on the film’s subjects with insert shots from old health films, anti-drug PSAs, Hollywood films, and pharma commercials. It’s a technique as used-up and empty as a Toaster Strudel icing packet. He also conflates pharmaceutical advertising with the completely separate issue of medical charlatanism and extends the discussion of American addiction to pornography, the internet, cheeseburgers, and iPhones — a thematic overreach that seems inconsequential by comparison with the family tragedy he documents.

Prescription Thugs

Directed by Chris Bell

Samuel Goldwyn Films

Opens January 22, Village East Cinema