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Review: Health insurance scam preys on human suffering in fascinating, flawed ‘Body Brokers’

Jack Kilmer and Alice Englert in the movie "Body Brokers."
(Vertical Entertainment)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

At the start of the hard-hitting indie drama “Body Brokers,” a narrator explains the ins and outs of a modern health insurance scam. In response to America’s drug addiction epidemic, the government has poured money into rehab facilities; that has inadvertently spawned an off-the-books business for junkies and their caregivers, who can get paid handsomely if they fill beds and complete routine medical procedures.

Writer-director John Swab knows a lot about this scheme, and aims to educate his audience by walking them through the experiences of a habitual heroin user named Utah (Jack Kilmer). Pressed into rehab by a persuasive sponsor named Wood (Michael Kenneth Williams), Utah leaves his perpetually wasted girlfriend, Opal (Alice Englert), and makes an honest effort to get clean, not realizing that his sobriety has been sold to the highest bidder.

Swab spends a lot of time establishing Utah’s perspective: first as a desperate addict, then as somebody trying in good faith to recover, and then as someone who joins Wood in making money off of human misery. There’s a simplicity to Swab’s approach that can be a little frustrating as his story moves slowly and predictably from point to point.

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The overall tone of “Body Brokers” drifts too much to extremes. The good characters border on saintly; the bad ones seem irredeemably corrupt. Throughout the picture, Swab includes informative “The Big Short”-style primers on what’s actually been going on around the country; but the fictional parts of his film often are more hectoring than journalistic.

All of that said, “Body Brokers” is too fascinating and deeply felt to dismiss. For every bluntly melodramatic moment, there are three or four that are bracingly real, detailing Utah’s disillusionment as he realizes not all of his “helpers” are on the up-and-up. The plot here is too plain, but the details are vivid and the outrage palpable. If nothing else, this movie is one hell of an education.

'Body Brokers'

Rated: R, for strong drug content, pervasive language and some sexual content

Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes

Playing: Available Feb. 19 on digital and VOD and in limited release where theaters are open


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