Fact Vs. Fiction: How Is the Netflix Film ‘Pain Hustlers’ Different From the True Story?

Pain and medication are things that fall under our daily routine. A human survives with pain, both physical and mental. People avoid psychological pain with temporary distraction, while physical pain becomes difficult to ignore from moment to moment. Cancer’s “breakthrough” pain, which equates to an unusual death agony, forces people to find quick solutions. In 2012, a pharma company called Insys Therapeutic came up with a cure that seemed almost magical. Their pharmaceutical company produced Subsys, a medicinal spray containing a significant dose of fentanyl, which not only cures pain but turns people into addicts.


Helmed by David Yates, Pain Hustlers is a film that follows a fictional retelling of the Insys Therapeutic fraud. Based on an investigative article in The New York Times by Evan Hughes and its later book adaptation called The Hard Sell: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup, Yates’ Pain Hustler follows the journey of Liza Drake, who was the amalgamation of many whistle-blowers in the Insys Therapeutic fraud. The film has taken many other creative liberties too, portraying an entertaining yet heartbreaking storyline based on the actual events.

Spoilers Ahead


Who Is Jack Neel? What Happened To Him?

In Pain Hustlers, Andy Garcia’s Jack Neel is the founder of Zanna Therapeutic, which produces Lonafin, a medicinal spray to heal the pain of cancer patients. Jack Neel does exist in real life, but is shaped in the mold of John Kapoor, a business tycoon who was born and brought up in India and later migrated to America. John Kapoor is a huge inspiration behind the character of Jack Neel, as from appearance to their history, there are some uncanny similarities. John Kapoor came up with the idea of “Subsys” after his wife fell sick due to metastatic breast cancer and eventually lost her life. Similarly, in the film, Jack Neel’s disclosure of his wife’s death of cancer encouraged him to cultivate the idea of Lonafin.

John Kapoor was an aggressive and strict individual with gray hair and specs, just like he has been portrayed in the film. Kapoor was the one who came up with the idea of the “Speakers Program,” which was nothing but bribing the doctors to write prescriptions. With so many speakers working for Insys, the company’s revenue skyrocketed in a few years. With an excess of money and a glowing reputation, Kapoor and his associates’ hunger for money began to escalate. They shifted their attention from cancer patients to patients with all kinds of pain. To persuade the doctors into their scheme, Insys started hiring attractive girls as saleswomen who didn’t have any experience in this field. The speaker program was so alluring for the corrupt and money-seeking doctors that they started prescribing Subsys to all kinds of pain patients without hesitation. However, the eventual outcome didn’t come out as satisfactory as they’d have thought. Several whistleblowers in Insys filed their complaints against Kapoor in order to put an end to his insatiable hunger for power, but not every one of them could continue their protest. Some of them backed off, while others made settlements with the company. However, a New Jersey representative possessed some crucial evidence against Kapoor, leading him to have significant legal troubles. He was arrested in October 2017, and finally, in 2019, he was found guilty and given a prison sentence of five and a half years.


Does Pete Brenner Exist In Real Life?

Pete Brenner, portrayed by Chris Evans, is also a fictional representation of the former sales manager of Insys, Alec Burlakoff, whose outward appearance was charming and likable, while actually he was a desperate and restless man. Burlakoff joined Insys when the speaker program was in operation. He introduced several saleswomen, like Tracy Krane and many more, to Kapoor. His performance as a loyal and hard-working employee soon saw him promoted to operate the entire sales department of Insys. Just as the film portrayed, in real life as well, Burlakoff was one of those employees who tried to cover for Kapoor. But in the end, Alec couldn’t even save himself or the billionaire founder of the company. Alec Burlakoff was also arrested along with Kapoor and other associates and given a long prison sentence.

Who Is Liza Drake?

Liza Drake is a combination of several whistleblowers who were former employees of Insys. In Pain Hustlers, Liza Drake becomes a protagonist who had a child with a brain tumor, which might be a creative liberty taken by the filmmakers in order to give the character an edge and a reason to desperately seek money. Liza Drake might be a fictional representation of Sunrise Lee, the sales manager of Insys, as, just like Liza Drake, Sunrise was also a former dancer, as mentioned in Evan Hughes’ investigative article in The New York Times. Besides Sunrise, Tracy Krane, who was hired by Burlakoff, might be an inspiration behind the character of Liza Drake. However, Liza Drake represents many such employees who raised their voices against the pharmaceutical corruption committed by Insys.


What happened To Dr. Lydell And His Patient, Matt?

Oncologist Dr. Lydell in the film Pain Hustlers terrified us with the fact that even doctors couldn’t be reliable sources of help and support for a patient. What makes this even more terrifying is that Dr. Lydell serves as a fictional representation of many corrupt medical professionals who preferred their personal gain over providing genuine care to their patients. Dr. Steven Chun,  and Dr. Awerbuch were some of the medical practitioners who became speakers for Insys Therapeutic, earning a substantial amount of money by prescribing the drugs to all kinds of pain patients. They were prescribing the drug, Subsys, off-label, which was finally caught in the act by the police. Just as portrayed in the film, in reality, Dr. Awerbuch wrote scripts for the drug for a non-cancerous patient who was an undercover agent. Awerbuch was arrested from his clinic, just like Lydell was in the film.

Jeff Buchalter, an Iraq war veteran who was also a non-cancerous pain patient suffering from his war injuries, was prescribed the drug Subsys to cure his pain. Initially, the drug worked like magic for him just like it worked for his fictional representation, Matt, a former soldier in Pain Hustlers, but Buchalter soon began to lose his grip on reality, which was slowly pushing him on the edge. Buchalter sued his prescriber and described how Subsys made him feel absent from his own life.

Pain Hustlers is a cautionary tale showcasing the dark side of medical science and pharmaceutical companies. Sometimes the hunger for power, reputation, and money becomes so strong and irresistible that people in the upper class of the power dynamic don’t even care about the quality of human life. Ordinary human beings become collateral damage for these powerful people in their endeavors for personal gain. In this desperate race for power and money, a true conscience is rarely found. Very few people have the courage to stand against corruption like Liza Drake, who symbolizes the ray of hope in the darkest abyss of evil.

Poulami Nanda
Poulami Nanda
Poulami Nanda hails from a medical background, yet her journey is to cross the boundaries of medicine and survive in the cinematic world. The surrealistic beauty of cinema and art has attracted her from a very young age. She loves to write poems, songs, and stories, but her dream is to write films someday. She has also worked as a painter, but nothing attracts her more than cinema. Through her writings, she wants to explore the world of cinema more and more and take her readers on the same ride.

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