Bill Oberst, Jr. Takes On The Opioid Crisis in Mark Savage’s ‘Painkiller’ (2021) – Movie Review

The opioid crisis. We’ve heard about it. We’ve read news articles about it. We may even have been affected by it. But what can we do about it? Grieving father Bill Johnson (Circus Of The Dead’s Bill Oberst, Jr.) has an idea about that in Mark Savage’s 2021 film, Painkiller. Inspired by the experiences of the film’s screenwriter, Tom Parnell, Painkiller tells the story of a man gone rogue following the death of his daughter after she became addicted to opioids.

Oberst, Jr. and Parnell have teamed back up with Director Mark Savage after working with him on 2016’s Stressed To Kill where the two actors play the same characters but in a completely different situation. While that film is more of a black comedy, Painkiller is as serious as a heart attack.

The film centers around three characters, played by genre icon Bill Oberst, Jr., Tom Parnell (read our interview with these two amazing gents here), and Michael Paré (Eddie And The Cruisers 1983) as three men with completely different reasons to be ticked off. Bill wants revenge for his daughter’s death and will take out anyone he sees as a further influence in putting opioids on the streets. Dr. Mac (Parnell) has been screwed over by his old medical practice partner, Dr. Alan Rhodes (Paré), and his wife has just asked for a divorce. Alan wants the Doc’s signature on the release for a patent for a new heart medication that the both of them invented together (although he wants to use it as a new painkiller, natch) and cannot understand why the guy just won’t sign it over. He’s also irritated that people keep giving him grief about prescribing painkillers. Oh, did I mention that Rhodes also stole Dr. Mac’s wife, a woman who will cut her ex-husband to the bone to get what she wants?

What Works

This is a message that needs to be shared. We talk a lot about horror here at PopHorror—supernatural hauntings, creature features, home invasions, psychos with machetes—but, for the most part, these things will never happen to us. They’re safe scares. We only have to imagine ourselves in these situations for the 2 hour run time of the film, and then we can go back to our real life troubles, like bills, relationships, health, and work. But Painkiller reminds us that there is something out there that’s just as horrible as demonic possession or knife-happy maniacs, something just as deadly that can affect anyone who’s ever had any kind of constant, throbbing ache.

There are drugs that doctors prescribe as temporary relief after surgery or to counteract chronic pain, but these pills have deadly side effects. They can literally change the brain chemistry in the person taking them, making them feel as if they need more of the drug. Their bodies crave it, and telling them to get over it is like telling a thirsty person not to want water. And this is a horror that can affect anyone at just about any time. Who hasn’t felt pain? Who hasn’t wanted relief from that pain? And who doesn’t trust their doctor to give them the best medicine? There can be deep, painful ramifications for those things. This is true horror.

Unfortunately, there is no end to who’s at fault for this worldwide problem. The killing over this problem would never end. There’s only 6 degrees that separate us all from each other. Chances are, every one of us has some connection to opioids, either as pain relief or addiction itself. So, who’s really safe from finding themselves on the other end of Bill’s gun?

Bill Oberst Jr, Painkiller
Bill Oberst, Jr. kills the pain in ‘Painkiller’

You can feel the emotion and passion that went into writing this script throughout Painkiller. Tom Parnell put his heart and soul into this story, and it makes a heartbreaking yet fitting tribute to his son. With lines like, “Pain is the price we pay for our memories,” and “There’s a word for a husband who loses a wife… a widower. There’s a word for a wife who loses and husband… a widow. And there’s a word for a child that’s lost their parents… an orphan. But there is no word for a parent who loses a child,” you can’t help but feel the anguish it must have taken to write something like that. I’m proud of Tom for taking this project on, despite the emotional pain it must have caused him. And it’s lines like these that make the reason behind Bill’s actions all the more obvious and sympathetic.

Bill Oberst Jr, Khalimah Gaston, Painkiller
Bill Oberst Jr. and Khalimah Gaston in ‘Painkiller’

Alan Rhodes is the ultimate baddie in Painkiller. I could almost picture him twirling his Stanley Whiplash mustache as he ruins his old partner’s professional reputation and steals his wife, taking almost everything possible away from him. Seeing him standing there in his untucked shirt, snorting a line, getting serviced by the pill addict beneath his desk, the hubris rolling off him in waves, makes you want to kill the guy yourself. At least guys like Jason and Freddy are slightly relatable. We all get pissed off and want to start taking people out like smashing ants. But you really can’t understand this guy’s motivation. He’s already rich. You just can’t help but hate him. He’s irredeemable.

Liz DeCoudres, Painkiller
Liz DeCoudres as Penny in ‘Painkiller’

Painkiller tells a satisfying story, especially for those of us who have been wronged in some unforgivable way. As Bill Oberst, Jr. said in our interview most recent interview, “Someone must pay.” It’s the ultimate revenge fantasy. People do pay here, and Bill never even has to get his hands dirty (literally, although not figuratively).

I love the Purge-like mask used in Painkiller. The enraged, maniacal expression crossed with the justice of the American flag is the perfect design. I’m hoping to see that mask turn up in other films… like maybe the film’s sequel.

Painkiller 2021 mask
The killer’s mask in ‘Painkiller’

What Doesn’t Work

There are a few things that don’t really work in Painkiller. I thought some parts of the film were a bit repetitive. While I do realize that there are limits to how one man can kill random people with a gun, I thought watching Bill shoot people over and over from about 10′ away in the grass got a little old. It would have been interesting to see him mix things up a bit. Maybe he could have taken someone out while driving down the highway from his car window or while they were swimming in their expensive swimming pool. And the slow motion shot of pills spilling into a table was a bit overdone.

Painkiller’s editing is a bit loose. Scenes definitely could have been tightened up a bit. I also think that some of the character’s reactions were a bit unnatural, but it wasn’t something that detracted from the effect of the experience.

Tom Parnell, Bill Oberst Jr, Painkiller
Tom Parnell and Bill Oberst, Jr. in ‘Painkiller’

Final Thoughts

Painkiller shows a true horror of our society, one which almost anyone could be touched by in their every day lives. This is much more than a revenge tale. It’s more than a vigilante Death Wish wannabe film. It’s an important story that needs to be told, and people need to listen.

Painkiller releases on VOD and DVD on May 4, 2021. Be sure to pick this one up, especially if you’re looking for some real horror.

About Tracy Allen

As the co-owner and Editor-in-Chief of PopHorror.com, Tracy has learned a lot about independent horror films and the people who love them. Now an approved critic for Rotten Tomatoes, she hopes the masses will follow her reviews back to PopHorror and learn more about the creativity and uniqueness of indie horror movies.

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