Writer/director John Swab seems entirely incapable of determining, either for himself or for his audience, what point he is trying to make in Body Brokers, which takes curious pleasure in putting its characters ― many of whom are drug addicts ― through the proverbial and sometimes literal wringer. On one hand, the story follows a young man whose attempt to rehabilitate pivots to a moneymaking scheme. On the other hand, it tries to communicate the tragedy of the ongoing opioid crisis. It is almost certainly better when performing the latter function.

We never learn the real names of the two people whose story this is for the opening act of Swab’s screenplay, but we do know that Utah (Jack Kilmer) and Opal (Alice Englert) changed their names to what they are with the advice of Wood (Michael Kenneth Williams), a mysterious figure in both of their lives. Utah’s drugs of choice are crack cocaine and heroin, and when he nearly overdoses, he checks into a rehabilitation facility (run by Dr. White, a compassionate head counselor played by Melissa Leo). He believes, as one might expect, that the facility is out to help people, but that isn’t quite true.

The facility is merely a façade and a fraudulent operation. Utah is recruited to recruit other addicts, who agree to undergo small procedures for the corrupt local doctors and pharmacists to “treat” vigorously with various opiate-based painkillers. Opal, meanwhile, disappears from this story for quite a long time, only returning when Utah needs a reality check from his past, and Utah meets May (Jessica Rothe), a nice and unassuming recovering addict who offers Utah a different kind of fork in the road.

In case one hadn’t caught on yet, this is, indeed, another story about a young man who seeks out and achieves a kind of glory, to the detriment of his soul. There is no question, especially within the thoughtful performance from Kilmer, that Utah once did have a more fully formed soul. It has, over the course of his troubled years, been stripped away and replaced by the desperation that often accompanies addiction. Opal, too, has been forced into sex work ― not to make a living but to add to the supply ― and Englert’s turn here is as devastating as you might think.

Once the narrative shifts to follow the moneymaking scheme and Utah’s nice romance with Mary, the movie’s focus on its characters broadens considerably, with Swab employing the oldest tricks in the book (montages: of the hamster wheel of addicts, of Utah and Mary’s happy times together) to tell his story. Utah meets Vin (Frank Grillo), a big-time guru with a darker personal life (who also narrates the film as if it’s one of his pep-talk videos), and falls deeper into love with May, who is unaware of the side hustle.

The point of the moneymaking enterprise is to further itself, as with any enterprise, and of course, that means exploiting, in some way, the addicts who are sent to stay at this place for 90 days. Insurance covers that stay under the guidelines of legislation, but it also means big paydays for those running the place. In a sense, then, we have two stories here ― Utah’s own journey as an addict and his growing success as a trainee in the scheme.

Swab struggles with the tonal split here. The scheme is presented with the relative lightness of a caper, while the constant weight of addiction and its malcontents drags everything back to reality. That’s one way of looking at Body Brokers. The other way is reconciling the ground-level drama with the caper that intrudes upon it.

Another story about a young man who seeks out and achieves a kind of glory, to the detriment of his soul.
50 %
Tonal Whiplash
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