Tribeca 2022 Review: Money Makes the World Go Round in the Wild True Story “American Pain”

“Some parents didn’t understand the twin thing and I had to explain it to them,” John Paul George says in “American Pain,” recalling how his teenage sons Chris and Jeff would get into such violent scrums during their youth hockey games that he’d get a tap on the shoulder every now and then. The brothers weren’t just brawny, eventually adding muscle with steroids, but brainy as well with their father recalling that not only did they have a mind meld that would lead to one brother laughing before the other could finish a joke, but that they fared well in mathematics competitions in their home of Palm Beach, Florida. It’s an unusual confluence of qualities that not only led Chris and Jeff to become prescription medication kingpins from South Florida where they helped fuel an explosion across the country in opioid addiction after easing the distribution of the painkiller Roxicodone, but they make an irresistible subject for director Darren Foster to profile.

There’s just one issue —Chris and Jeff are in prison with only limited access to the phone to tell their own story, leaving Foster to largely cast about within the crazy company they kept to describe the strange empire they built out of ramshackle storefronts and ethically compromised physicians with script pads. What could’ve been a disadvantage turns into an opportunity for Foster, who may have to lean heavily on the plethora of selfies likely found on Chris and Jeff’s cell phones to have his central characters show up in the film, but is able to tell a story that was always going to be far bigger than them no matter how much they bulked up as they set up a network that worked on the fringes of the law, acquiring pharmaceutical drugs at a low price where dealers in other parts of the country would scoop them up and sell for far higher rates. Naturally, a host of rascals pop in and out of “American Pain,” both the film and the clinic it’s named after where the FBI found an operation more akin to a DMV, as one agent describes it, than a medical treatment center.

The common knowledge that there was no central database in Florida to check who was prescribed what gave way to both dealers and addicts who could fill up on pills to their heart’s content, leading to lines that wrapped around the building, but while the demand has been a well-covered subject, Foster is able to hone in on the shrewd calculations that the George twins came to running the business, locating professionals with the right qualifications and lax morals, whether it’s the doctors who lost their interest in actual medicine long ago or former DEA agents could help avoid raids, and working around what few laws there were in place. Paced like a sugar rush, the totality of the organization that the brothers built up is staggering if you even pause for a second to think about it given all the people Foster talks to and the film’s simple yet novel approach to hidden camera video, adjusting any footage shot at an odd angle to be centered and giving a real view into the clinic, allows one to be swept up in the wild chain of events as much as everyone involved was. By the end of “American Pain,” the twin thing makes sense, even if how all the legal loopholes and specious regulations that allowed it to happen does not.

“American Pain” will screen again at Tribeca on June 13th at 6 pm at the Cinepolis Chelsea and June 17th at 2 pm at the Village East. It will also be available to stream on the Tribeca at Home platform, geoblocked to New York, from June 13th at 6 pm through the end of the festival on June 19th.