Body Brokers is littered with fascinating parts, but never manages to pull it all together into a cohesive vision.
There are at least four different movies vying for attention in the new ripped-from-the-headlines thriller Body Brokers, each of them potentially compelling on their own, but here awkwardly meshed together into a jumbled morass. Initially a story of two junkies, Utah (Jack Kilmer) and Opal (Alice Englert), who pull stick up jobs and get high in flophouses, the film changes gears when they meet Wood (Michael K. Williams), a stranger who buys them a hot meal and offers to help them get clean. Utah decides to take him up on his offer, leaving a skeptical Opal behind, and heads to a treatment facility, where he detoxes and starts to get a sense that not all is as it seems in this otherwise picaresque environment. CEO Vin (Frank Grillo) becomes our guide to this segment, as he details how certain provisions in the Affordable Care Act created a Wild West for new, for-profit treatment centers, as places popped up out of the woodwork to take in addicts and then bill outrageous sums back to insurance providers. Utah eventually leaves rehab and teams up with Wood, and they start brokering junkies in and out of rehab places, paying them to temporarily get clean and getting kickbacks for filling up beds (hence the title). The plot thickens when a new scam presents itself; at Vin’s behest, Utah and Wood enter into an arrangement with an unscrupulous surgeon to place opioid inhibitors into willing participants, with everyone getting a cut of the insurance payout. Eventually, Utah meets a woman, just in time for Opal to come back into the picture and complicate things. And then there’s a murder. It’s a lot to take in, more like a season of a television show crammed into a two hour movie.
For it’s oversaturation, there’s still a lot to like here. Writer/director John Swab keeps things moving at a brisk pace, and the details of the brokering process are genuinely fascinating. But you’ve seen these rise-and-fall narratives before, as Utah revels in fast, easy money but gradually grows a conscience. There’s also a weird mish-mash of tones, from the somber realism of the early scenes to the flashy, punchy montages of Utah and Wood at work. Grillo occasionally pops in via smug voiceover narration, laying out the various scams in jazzy montages that recall The Big Short, or in a behind-the scenes-look at a call center where sales people auction off potential clients to the highest bidder that plays like a miniature Wolf of Wall Street remake. Things mostly hold together, thanks to a game cast, until Utah gets involved with May (Jessica Rothe), and the film gets distracted: it tries to sell their romance, legitimize Utah’s moral transformation, and indulge a sudden act of violence in an incredibly brief amount of time. The film rallies for a bracing finale, but despite the bold ending, Body Brokers never manages to rise above being a noble failure.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | February 2021.