Politics Undermine the Personal Story Behind ‘Prescription Thugs’

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The plague of addiction to prescription drugs is one of the few things in this modern political climate that isn’t particularly divisive. Both sides of the aisle may not agree on what to do about the problem, but at least they can come to some kind of consensus that there is a problem, which is something that’s increasingly rare these days. In the latest documentary examination of our nation’s collective drug problem, documentarian Chris Bell shifts between the polemic and the personal with Prescription Thugs. Sadly, Bell’s film never finds the right balance as his political examination is woefully unsophisticated while his personal look provides Prescription Thugs with its most affecting and thought provoking moments.

After opening with a montage culling soundbites from disparate cultural icons as Chris Rock and Rush Limbaugh while liberally employing imagery from various public domain archival shorts, Bell opens Prescription Thugs by piggybacking off his last film, Bigger, Stronger, Faster, which examined the role of steroid abuse in our modern society. Using the struggles of his brother, Mike “Mad Dog” Bell, a former WWE wrestler who battled both steroid and opioid addiction, Chris Bell looks into the personal toll of prescription addiction which culminates in the relapse and eventual death of his beloved brother. Between interviews with his family and other former wrestlers who have battled their pill-shaped demons, Bell is able to humanize a story that is all too familiar – the untimely death of a professional wrestler.

Bell uses the death of his brother as a jumping off point for a number of personal discussions about addiction with some MMA fighters, wrestlers, and various people in his own life before turning towards more of a political exposé style of filmmaking, though Bell’s talents as a polemicist leaves much to be desired. Unfortunately, Bell focuses almost entirely on anecdotal evidence to drive home his point, never being more than passively convincing without the benefit of harder evidence. Repeatedly, Bell and his interview subject of activists and afflicted addicts extol the problems of the pharmaceutical industry and their greed, but they’re collectively incapable of taking their outrage beyond the obvious.

The failures of Prescription Thugs as a polemic is counterbalanced by the personal story of Chris Bell. Not only does he use this film to explore the circumstances of his brother’s death, but he also bravely admits his own problems with prescription drugs and alcohol. It’s a moment of personal courage that salvages much of the film’s failed firebrand politics. The strong personal angle of Prescription Thugs proves that Bell erred in trying to do too much with his film, the broad political aspects diluting the film’s larger emotional impact. After all, it’s not like the massive profits and lobbying power of the pharmaceutical industry are a shocking revelation.

Had Prescription Thugs been able to stick its landing, it would’ve been a much more effective examination of the multitude of problems to create an epidemic, or at the very least a personal tale of addiction and loss. But the film doesn’t stick the landing. Instead, Chris Bell attempts to tie the whole film together by making the entire process a byproduct of consumerism, a populace entirely misled by advertising into the throes of chemical dependency. But a problem this widespread and ingrained within a culture can’t just be simply explained by a singular cause. At the very end, like so many other documentarians before, Bell tries to pull his exploration together with a punctuation that will encompass his point except that’s not exactly where the movie took the audience. For the most part, Prescription Thugs is a somber look at a serious problem that affects people throughout the world. In trying to prove a point over following through on the profound personal angle, Chris Bell lost sight of the point.

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