Ever since the 2008 financial crisis brought renewed attention to the greed and corruption of the one percent, there has been a growing desire to see the executives hiding behind faceless corporations pay for their crimes against working-class people. With an opioid epidemic still ravaging the country, that anger naturally gets shifted towards the pharmaceutical industry that has been raking in profits off these destructive, mostly legal drugs. While it’s easy to talk about righting this great wrong, in reality, there’s very little that most people can actually do about it. In the fantasy world of Horror/Thriller cinema, on the other hand, it’s a lot easier for one man to decide he’s fed up, slap on a goofy mask, and head out into the world to make a real difference. Which is exactly what happens in Mark Savage’s film, PainKiller. Though the indie nature of the film is readily apparent and there are more than a few laughable flaws, the film nevertheless manages to tap into the current zeitgeist and deliver an intriguing new entry in the ranks of fictional serial killers.
The killer in question is known only as The Six Shooter, due to his trademark habit of shooting each of his victims six times. What is more interesting, though, is what connects his victims to each other: from doctors to CEOs to low level street dealers, they are all in part responsible for the opioid epidemic. Though the public will never learn The Six Shooter’s identity, the audience quickly learns that the man behind the red, white, and blue skull mask is Bill Johnson (Bill Oberst Jr), the host of an internet radio call-in show for people who have lost loved ones to this scourge. Using information he gathers from his callers, as well as criminal records from a rogue vice cop, Bill wages a one-man war against the people who hooked and killed his daughter. Though the revenge fantasy plot is fairly straightforward, it thickens a bit when Bill befriends the recently disgraced Dr. Thomas Mac (Tom Parnell), a heart surgeon who operated on him after a heart attack, and who recently developed a new medication to help his patients. In higher doses, the drug can be used as pain killer more powerful than fentanyl. Smelling millions of dollars in unscrupulous prescriptions, his partner Dr. Alan Rhodes (Michael Pare) tries to blackmail Dr. Mac into signing over the patent.
Some of that good shit might come in handy for viewers of the film, as it is painfully clear that this is a low-budget film that frequently suffers from the limitations of its resources. The acting is frequently hammier than a good pea soup and the dialogue is awkwardly on the nose, to say nothing of the occasional bloodless gunshots or repetitive newspaper headlines that punctuate each murder. And the villains of the piece tend to be overly broad caricatures with little sense of realism or nuance. During a particularly eye-roll-worthy scene, The Six Shooter walks into a ramshackle trailer where a dealer in track pants shares an impressively unconvincing sex scene with an old woman before telling her in typical arch-villainous fashion that she should give some pills to her granddaughter because “that middle school could be a money tree.” The plot is full of holes, not least of which is, if the dealer and the granny were killed in the same trailer, at the same time, while presumably covered in each others’ fluids, why are their deaths billed as two separate newspaper headlines?
Despite these flaws, what really holds the film together is Bill Oberst Jr’s performance. Though his acting is subdued and his emotions are usually veiled, he always manages to be a compelling anti-hero. Whether he’s mourning his own personal loss, giving impassioned soliloquies on his radio show, or attempting to get in some glib one-liners before an execution, he has an oddly magnetic quality that really brings The Six Shooter to life. While he may not be quite as nuanced as Hannibal Leter or look quite as creepy as the Saw puppet, he nevertheless manages to blend humanity and monstrosity into a complex and sympathetic man searching for justice where there is rarely any to be found.
Verdict: 3 out of 5 Stars
PainKiller may not be a perfect film, but fans of vigilante justice narratives will find plenty to enjoy in The Six Shooter’s escapades. Though Bill Oberst Jr’s performance alone isn’t quite enough to completely overcome the film’s many technical flaws, it is strong enough to keep you invested through the most tedious bits of overacting that frequently surround him. It’ll be worth a watch to anyone interested in the opioid crisis or revenge fantasy fulfillment. However, even though the film sets itself up pretty clearly for a potential sequel, once around will probably be more than enough for most people.