Courtesy of SXSW

The opioid epidemic has many faces. A public health crisis that has ravaged the United States for years is finally being exposed as a grand conspiracy by Big Pharma executives. “The Oxy Kingpins” aims to tell the opioid story from two perspectives — the underground and the overlord. The message is simple: Why should the dealers and users face jail time while the executives walk free, riding a dirty money high?

Filmmakers Brendan Fitzgerald (in his directing debut) and Nick August-Perna (“The Swell Season”) frame the narrative of “The Oxy Kingpins” around the top and the bottom of the OxyContin food chain. At the top, CEOs of drug distributors like McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen are caught up in a legal battle. Such battles are led by Mike Papantonio — big shot lawyer, radio host and face of “America’s Lawyer,” a show on Russian state-funded channel RT America — who aims to hold the pharmacies and distributors accountable for flooding drugstores in rural, sparsely-populated communities with millions of pills.

At the bottom, Alex Dimattio represents the opiate street trade. Now the proprietor of Brooklyn’s Jane Motorcycles, Dimattio served five years in federal prison for his role as a distributor of a different sort. Based in Miami, Dimattio would organize the shipment of thousands of pills to Boston and Connecticut each week, making millions of dollars and partying like a real South Beach stud.

But these CEOs and pushers are not the only ones at fault, and Dimattio and Papantonio focus their assault on the middlemen. Papantonio details the reckless manner in which controlled substances were supplied to individual pharmacies by drug distributors in startling quantities. Meanwhile, Dimattio explains how the prevalence of “pain clinics” in Florida, staffed by doctors paid to push pills, made obtaining prescriptions easy. Those pharmacies were all too willing to fill these prescriptions, raking in cash without much thought for the bigger picture.

Introducing an interview about the film, an RT America host claims that “this documentary … help(s) to tell (a story) that the corporate media continues to ignore.” But that isn’t really true. From recent news about drug companies exploiting tax loopholes to older stories introducing the role of these distributors and in-depth analysis of the Sackler family (owners of Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin), the mainstream media is very aware and critical of the misanthropic greed which characterizes the whole epidemic.

It is because of this thorough coverage by the media that “The Oxy Kingpins” feels like a waste of time. The only unique aspect of the film is the exploration of the Oxy underground and how dealers like Dimattio obtained such large quantities of a controlled substance. Unfortunately, the filmmakers stop short of a full investigation. 

We do not hear from any pharmacists or pain doctors and only have access to Dimattio’s organization. It’s true that most people who have committed crimes won’t be eager to speak publicly about them, but the other three members of Dimattio’s operation were interviewed without revealing their faces or identities. The same could have been done for the actual gatekeepers of the pill supply.

On a technical level, the film is disappointing as well. Interspersed with stock video B-roll of doctors consulting with elderly women and people working in office buildings, the production value lacks finesse. Perhaps due to the director’s lack of experience, poor-quality B-roll shots of cars driving in reverse slipped through the cracks and watered down the impact of the film. Maybe “The Oxy Kingpins” would be better as a podcast series; as cinema, the film is entirely forgettable.

Atop the focus on middlemen, the sentiment that drug executives should be held accountable for their role just as the dealers and users have been, is also communicated clearly. While “The Oxy Kingpins” does offer another angle into the epidemic through Dimattio, something feels amiss. Papantonio and his colleagues don’t effectively convince the viewer that they are out for more than their cut of a big check. Despite some performative altruism in trying to keep documents that show corporate wrongdoing from being sealed by the court (as the drug companies would prefer), the lawyers have an ambulance-chasing attitude. Robert Eglet, a Nevada lawyer working with Papantonio, claims that the case is personal because he knows entire families who suffer from addiction. This doesn’t cut it: he speaks in ornate law offices masquerading as houses of government (complete with a conference room labeled the “War Room”). 

 “The Oxy Kingpins” fails because it doesn’t give us any new, actionable information. It shows one representative of the illicit opioid trade and puts a few numbers to the specific mechanisms used by the drug companies to move massive amounts of product. The film offers no revelation and lacks a cinematic edge. Fated to join the ranks of mediocre YouTube documentaries, “The Oxy Kingpins” misses the mark.

Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at