Written by Giles Daoust (Starry Eyes) and directed by Roxy Shih (The Tribe), Painkillers is one of those films that, in lesser hands, could have fallen apart easily becoming a caricature of itself.
In the film, Doctor John Clarke (Adam Huss) and his young son, Brian (Tate Birchmore), have to cut soccer practice short when he receives a call from the hospital that his surgical skills are needed. Brian is upset at having to leave early so John does what he can to take the boy’s mind off of it, playing games in the car to pass the time.
Unfortunately, John’s divided attention leads to a terrible accident. Two days later, he regains consciousness in the hospital and his wife Chloe (Madeline Zima), tells him that their son has died.
Upon hearing the news, John’s entire body seizes with unbearable pain that no drug seems able to touch. For days, he trembles, screams, and begs for relief that will not come. When his friend and fellow doctor Gail (Debra Wilson) tells him she believes that the problem is emotional rather than physical, she makes the decision to send him home in the hopes that familiar surroundings will help him heal.
John’s body, still wracked with horrible tremors, betrays him at every turn until one night he accidentally cuts open his hand. Without thought, he lifts his hand and licks away the blood only to discover that his pain lessens, the tremors subside, and for the first time in days he finds some peace.
Faced with a terrifying possibility, John begins to experiment, finding that blood truly is the only thing that takes away his pain, and begins a journey that will affect everyone around him.
On the surface, this could be just a new spin on vampirism. John is a man cursed with an “unnatural” hunger and becomes a pariah.
Shih and Daoust, however, have crafted a multi-layered story that is as intelligent as it is scary.
John, through his need for blood, becomes a living embodiment of the effects of PTSD and addiction which could have gone horribly awry without Huss’s sensitive portrayal under Shih’s direction.
He does not revel in the relief that he feels after consuming blood. Instead, he fights the instinct, pushes back against the need, and more than once gives in despite his best efforts.
Huss handles this inner turmoil with enviable ease and brutal honesty, but his performance is just one of many stellar turns in Painkillers.
Madeline Zima, who many remember as a child actress in the Fran Drescher driven sitcom “The Nanny,” proves those days are behind her giving a powerfully emotional performance as John’s wife whose grief at the loss of her son remains an open wound she cannot tend to because of everything happening to her husband.
It’s a pointed portrait of the fact that PTSD and other mental health issues can easily reach into every corner of a person’s life and that family and friends experience the trauma as well.
Likewise, Debra Wilson’s performance is spot on as a doctor witnessing what is happening to John and trying to piece everything together even when her logical medical mind cannot quite accept what she’s seeing
And then, there’s Dustin Morgan’s work on the film. The talented composer provides an evocative score that perfectly tonally complements what we see onscreen, amplifying emotions in the way that only great music can.
If you’re looking for excellent storytelling, genuine tension, and a new spin on an old trope, this is the film for you.
Painkillers hits Video on Demand this week, February 4, 2019. Check out the trailer below!