Low-budget films feel like they should be the ideal place to more brutally explore important themes. Unburdened by the notes that come with money, and unable to cover up their seams with the same, they can be virtuosic demonstrations of what good craft and creative fixes can do. However, to do that, there needs to be an understanding of writing and filmmaking craft that goes beyond having a character state their blunt intentions in a reverse shot.
This gets worse when the plot is as derivative as PainKiller. The film follows Bill (Bill Oberst Jr.), a man out on a mission to kill individuals involved in the distribution of opiates. His daughter overdosed, and he has now made it his righteous duty to avenge her. If that sounds like a pseudo-fed Death Wish, that’s because it is, and the narrative never tries to explore beyond that.
A derivative plot isn’t enough to sink a movie though. A familiar box filled in with a few surprises can be a great time. Just look at last year’s joyously derivative, yet joyously stupid Unhinged. What that movie had was the type of appealing character and tonal work that makes one of these halfway enjoyable. PainKiller doesn’t have any of that.
The biggest issue comes from the contrast of tone with the execution of the material. PainKiller desperately wants to be taken seriously, but almost every shot looks canned. There’s an attempted gravitas to the film. Director Mark Savage front loads the piece with slow-motion montages, and blatantly “important” images. It might work if the production design, acting, and framing was on the right level. In this case, all the importance becomes funny when the highlights of the exterior scenes are so clearly overexposed, and the framing is so incredibly flat.
The same goes for most of the acting and writing. Bill Oberst Jr. is always a fun presence in these movies. There’s something world weary in his eyes that allows a level of nuance to rise out of the material, even as his character is given less and less to do. PainKiller also burdens him with a number of heavy-handed monologues that Oberst Jr. manages to burn through easily. He looks capable in the few action beats the film throws at him. It’s too bad that he’s the only person with an inch of personality in the film. Michael Paré (The Virgin Suicides) is about as wooden as they come, unconvincing in dialogue scenes, and worse when he actually has to move. Everyone else ranges from theatrical to incompetent. The few actresses the film bothers to feature all fall victim to its nasty sexist streak, either being sexual props or cannon-fodder.
What all of this adds up to is a film that makes a mockery of its important subject matter. Everyone involved in this probably appreciates the gravity of the opioid crisis, but the lack of craft brings down the entire project. Under a more subtle and suggestive hand, this could have been an entertaining genre exercise. As it is, it’s an unlikable and malignant offshoot.
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