American Pain (2023) Documentary Review: A pill mill is a facility resembling a regular pain clinic that prescribes narcotics or pills without supervision or oversight. The American Opioid Crisis during the late 2000s, spreading into the early 2010s, had been an era of harrowing reflection, and the last year had been a particularly good substrate for the exploration of that crisis through miniseries (Dopesick) and documentaries (All the Beauty and Bloodshed, Love in the Time of Fentanyl). A documentary through this specific lens was almost kind of inevitable. Still, the prevalent question is whether this particular event of such widespread consequence deserves this true-crime storytelling lens.
The question of what storytelling structure should be applied then begins to infringe upon the existence of any sort of storytelling. Thus, asking that question becomes moot. However, it would be wrong to not entirely point out the singularly unique and yet horrifying story of excess and ruthlessness that “American Pain” chooses to tell—about a pill mill run by gun-toting steroid-injecting white supremacist twins, who also had a portable MRI unit-carrying van at the back of a strip mall.
One of the FBI agents wryly remarks that this could only happen in America. This writer would like to slightly correct that because, for some reason, the state of Florida indeed seems to be the home of all these “unique” occurrences, and “American Pain” does start to resemble the Netflix docuseries “Tiger King” in some instances. However, that specific brand of insanity and “trashy” tonality is missing here, perhaps for the better.
What “American Pain” does have is a study of excess and how the George brothers (Chris and Jeff George) manage to start a pain clinic and turn it into one of the largest pill mills simply because of a significant oversight: Florida not having a centralized medical database of all the authorized drug stores and the drugs authorized to be sold under medical prescriptions.
As a result, the pill mill becomes a wanton free-for-all, with Chris George and his partner Derick Nolan almost wistfully reacting to how they created a new “tourist spot,” where people from all over the country would drive for twelve to fourteen hours to come to their pain clinic for large doses of oxycodone, either to get high on the supply or to sell it back home.
The ease of access and the stories recounted by all of the talking heads would make the viewer feel like this documentary is a Coen Brothers movie—a story too impossible to be a reality and darkly humorous, which would force you to laugh. How else to describe an Easter egg hunt for adults where the eggs would contain a penny, a nickel, or a dime, each corresponding to the drug of choice for the finder, which they would immediately snort or inhale?
Concurrently, there would be events where this customer base would camp outside the clinic waiting for their turns. At the same time, reporters and investigative agencies tried to understand and search for the correct loophole to define the crime being committed and charge them with it. Meanwhile, Chris George and his associates raked in large amounts of money. He would even aggressively expand against his competitors to take over the pill mill business all over Florida.
It did rub this writer the wrong way when the story began with the twins’ father almost glorifying the twins’ go-getter and violent nature they had exhibited since childhood. For the most part, the documentary goes through the traditional route of true-crime documentaries proliferating in pop culture, with all of the cliches surrounding the basic framework of the documentary and increasingly unique talking heads who are not necessarily likable.
The problem becomes that the exploration of the excess takes up the majority of the running time of the documentary. The parts where the investigative aspects come into the picture, especially how an undercover cop manages to easily break into “American Pain” and record evidence connecting Chris George to all manners of fraud, are hilarious and yet thrilling in their simplicity.
However, because the opioid crisis is a relatively recent epidemic whose effects are still being felt today, the exploration of the consequences, the deaths, the addictions, and the alarming ease of the addictions, as well as the culpability of big pharmaceutical companies in ensuring the epidemic lasted as long as it did, warranted a more profound exploration than the last thirty minutes of a hundred-minute documentary.
It also didn’t help that, from a technical perspective, the documentary relied a lot on telephone transcripts being shown on screen, with voiceovers or beeps of incoming text messages being utilized as diegetic sounds. It’s a lazy form of filmmaking in a genre that has already shown us uniqueness in perspective and filmmaking regarding this topic. However, this is also produced by CNN, so a hyper-edited and glossier documentary presentation shouldn’t be out of the norm, just not an expected one.
However, “American Pain” does right itself in the final ten minutes because, in the exploration of the consequences of the opioid crisis, the reactions and rationalizations of all the major players in this racket become illuminating in their heartlessness and psychopathy.
With Chris George in the final scene abstaining himself from all responsibility or one of his primary competitors rationalizing that if he had not opened up a clinic, the victims would have managed to overdose anyway, it becomes a snapshot of the effects of capitalism where some of the principal culprits of the crisis can pretend themselves to be the victims, conveniently forgetting their culpability in the proliferation of this incident.
But director Darren Foster does manage not to shy away from giving a voice to this perspective as well, at least to maintain a semblance of objectivity in his storytelling. It tends not to make this film a one-sided, skewed affair while maintaining a quotient of entertainment in the proceedings.