Most addiction dramas follow the same basic trajectory; a central character, usually the protagonist but not always, is messed up on drugs, reaches a breaking point, receives help, recovers for a bit, relapses and then either gets clean for real or implodes. The most recent example was Beautiful Boy, which features Steve Carrell and Timothée Chalamet as a middle-class father and son struggling with the effects of the younger man’s ongoing addiction to crystal meth. Based on a true story, the glossy move feels incredibly inauthentic in how it sands down the edges of a crippling reliance on one of the most destructive drugs in the world, second only to heroin. Even when Chalamet goes off the rails, he still looks cherubic.
Body Brokers, the third feature from writer-director John Swab, is not your typical addiction drama. That much is obvious when the breezily confident, rat-a-tat narration from action hero Frank Grillo kicks in after about 10 seconds. The grizzled Purge star plays against type as a money-hungry suit looking to make a quick buck off the bulging addiction industry. He also provides some handy, and utterly damning, statistics about the central setup that will be news to most people. Swab has firsthand experience with the subject material, lending Body Brokers an uncomfortable intimacy that often makes it inextricable from reality.
Grillo’s grungy baritone is perfectly suited for narration, particularly considering it’s not immediately clear who he is or why he’s telling this story. Crucially, the voiceover isn’t smarmy like The Big Short. It lures the audience in with its sleekness before shocking them into submission. Similarly, the rehab facility in which the down-on-his-luck protagonist, Utah (a frighteningly baby-faced Jack Kilmer), finds himself is a beautiful place, set right on the water in California — all modern whites, comfy sofas and sparkling surfaces. Spending time there feels like a vacation rather than a chore, which is crucial to the morally repugnant business plan Body Brokers seeks to expose. Utah’s way has been paid, you see, by helpful stranger and fellow recovering addict, Wood (Michael Kenneth Williams).
More by Joey Keogh: Review: Rose Glass’ ‘Saint Maud’
However, after Wood’s no-good girlfriend, Opal (Alice Englert) shows up, he tries to give Utah his cut of the profits. At first, the kid recoils, confused over how he’s somehow managed to earn money through his girlfriend supposedly getting help. The reality, of course, is that the rehab is a kind of cottage industry in the U.S., and Utah is too weak to resist the allure of easy cash — money is a drug too, after all. When Wood takes his young charge to show him their high-spec operation, juxtaposed against a crack house where addicts are recruited to repeatedly go to rehab for pay, the savvy businessman explains, “This is the American fucking dream.” Grillo’s sizzlingly sour narration makes it clear nothing truly comes for free in this game, though.
Body Brokers plays its cards awfully close to the chest, making it impossible to predict where the film is headed despite a constant feeling of encroaching dread that punctures the blindingly sunny cinematography. Even the bleak existence Utah and Opal eke out in Ohio is beautifully photographed. Unlike the typical Hollywood junkie look (see: Chalamet in Beautiful Boy), however, the duo is completely wrecked. The styling is on point, their filthy, mismatched clothing suggesting years of living purely for the moment, while Opal’s hairy armpits are a clever nod to her carelessness. When Wood shows up to take Utah to California, the character is dressed all in black as though the kid is making a deal with the devil.
There’s a glossy sheen over everything in Body Brokers, similar to Beautiful Boy, once Utah gets clean and starts brokering bodies himself, but the rot lingers just under the surface. Dread permeates every moment, whether Utah is silently watching Opal shoot up in front of him or he’s lying dead-eyed during sex, arguably more disconnected from life now as a result money than he was on heroin. The broker lifestyle is presented as aspirational, from the Selling Sunset-style mansions to the sleek cars, as it likely was to Swab. When Grillo does finally appear, he’s borderline unrecognizable with too-white teeth and too-tan skin, a perfect embodiment of unchecked greed. His multimillionaire character, brilliantly named Vin, represents the conflict at the heart of the movie, and Utah’s personally too — just because we can, does it really mean we should?
More by Joey Keogh: Review: Jordan Graham’s ‘Sator’
Grillo is a dark delight in Body Brokers, delivering sobering statistics with a wink before pulling double duty as an oily capitalist whose hustle is hard not to admire. The charismatic actor is most well-known for franchise movies, so it’s great to see him branching out and sinking his teeth into something meatier. Likewise, the terrific Jessica Rothe, who is best known for her starring role in the Happy Death Day slashers, features as a kindly nurse who strikes up a sweet romance with Utah. Their relationship is handled with a light touch, particularly when the two attend an AA meeting together. The intimate gathering is shot and lit to single Utah out as though he’s the only one in the room, in a quietly impactful moment that deftly highlights his inner struggle. Although Utah desperately wants to move on, he’s not even sure who he is when sober.
Williams is wonderful as Wood, the closest thing the young addict has to a friend. His performance is loaded with nuance, alluding to issues of class and race in his interactions with a snobby doctor (played by Peter Greene — Zed from Pulp Fiction). He barely raises his voice above a whisper until Wood finally explodes on Utah in a speech overridden by love rather than fury. It’s a difficult line to tread, between helping someone and leading them down a dangerous path, but Williams plays Wood’s many contradictions expertly. It’s a shame that most of the addicts he and Utah deal with are white, however, considering how badly the opioid epidemic has affected communities of color, but research suggests white kids are more likely to be accepted into treatment, which may explain the discrepancy here.
Of those kids, Owen Campbell’s Sid stands out as a character seemingly transplanted over from a Safdie brothers movie. He can’t believe anyone would go to rehab for free, like Utah did, and stands behind a fellow addict — well off enough to be on her parents’ platinum insurance — mouthing about her being a “goldmine” for the brokers. Most of Body Brokers’ levity is courtesy of Sid’s outsized reactions, which thankfully do not overstay their welcome. Otherwise, despite its overall slickness, this is a dark and crucially never sensationalized take on drug addiction and rehabilitation — needle insertion is shown just once, even though it’s typically overused in drug movies, usually for shock value. There may be shades of The Wolf of Wall Street in Body Brokers, but don’t expect Utah and Wood to get messed up on Quaaludes and roll around on the floor having a wacky time together.
More by Joey Keogh: Review: Neil Marshall’s ‘The Reckoning’
Although there are some big names attached to Body Brokers, including a cameo from Melissa Leo, the real draw is Kilmer, who gives a revelatory performance. Barely in his twenties, the son of the legendary Batman star seems drawn to darker material, having played the suicidally ideated Dead in Lords of Chaos just a few years back. Utah is a less nihilistic character, but he’s still overflowing with heartache and a deep yearning for normality. Kilmer is mesmerizingly devastating in the role, even if his casting suggests the likes of Logan Miller and Kyle Gallner have aged out of playing such complicated, baby-faced types (sad, because it means we’re all getting older). Still, it’s tough to imagine anyone else being more convincing. Kilmer is clearly a star in the making, and, with any luck, he’ll continue to choose more interesting stuff like this rather than being sucked into the Marvel machine (much like Miller and Gallner).
Swab’s personal experience bleeds into every frame of Body Brokers, making it a taxing watch at times, but its true power lies in the details, many of which will be sadly familiar to anybody who’s struggled with addiction or knows someone who has. The final moments are harrowing, but they quickly give way to even more horrifying, real-life statistics. In this way, the film is difficult to get a handle on because there’s no real resolution. Refusing to sensationalize Utah’s struggle, or even make a judgement on him and his money-hungry cohorts, further emphasizes Swab’s empathetic yet impressively uninhibited approach to the material, which is compounded by Grillo’s winking snake oil salesman and his caustic voiceover. In the end, the two worlds are inextricably linked. The question Body Brokers ultimately asks is how comfortable we are with that reality.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.