REVERE — In the cinematic world, the city of Boston has earned something of a dubious reputation, one of guns, drugs, and violence. Films like “The Departed,” “Mystic River” and “The Town” paint a grisly picture of mean, dark streets stalked by criminals of every stripe. Many locals decry this characterization, but for one Charlestown native, the fiction is a hell of a lot closer to the truth.
John Hickey did not follow the usual path to screenwriting success. Instead of writing short stories or attending film school, Hickey devoted much of his early years to a life on the streets – selling drugs, committing robberies, and starting fights. Indeed, he was already a well-known to local law enforcement when a seemingly innocuous prescription drug arrived on the market in 1996.
Oxycontin, a time-release opioid manufactured by Purdue Pharma, appeared to be the answer to the prayers of many chronic pain sufferers – one pill that offered the same relief over the course of a day as a handful of Percocets. But for Hickey and his fellow “townies”, already doing a lucrative trade in painkillers and ecstasy on their streets, the arrival of Oxycontin would prove a goldmine.
By removing the time-release seal on the pills, the prescription medication was instantly transformed into a narcotic infinitely more powerful and addictive than any other on the market – one that could be sold for top dollar and, as Hickey’s friends soon discovered, was far easier to obtain than the typical hard drugs.
Thus began a string of brazen robberies – of pharmacies, corner markets, any place the drug was sold – by Hickey and his crew. These robberies, often in broad daylight, earned them the moniker “Oxy Bandits” from the Boston Police and a great deal of local and national attention. Already dubbed “hillbilly heroin” for the frequency of its abuse in the Appalachia region, Oxycontin use became a hot topic in the early 2000s.
By 2004, Hickey’s reign of terror over Charlestown had come to an end – sentenced to three years in prison, he began to write the script that would become “Oxy-Morons.” Semi-autobiographical in nature, the film would prove to be Hickey’s redemption – his opportunity to get clean, get straight, and share his cautionary tale with the world.
“I always knew I’d make this movie,” Hickey stated at a recent showing of “Oxy-Morons” in Revere, Massachusetts. The film, initially released in 2010, is enjoying a second round of screenings, accompanied by panel discussions with Hickey, his costars, and members of the law enforcement and drug rehabilitation communities – an attempt, it would seem, to put this extraordinarily violent movie in context.
For a film of this nature – a low-budget endeavor rendered in crystal clarity by the RED camera – context is all but necessary. Unlike Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” or Brian De Palma’s “Scarface,” films that have come to personify and glorify their respective drugs, “Oxy-Morons” eschews these stylistic trappings and goes straight for the gut. In vivid, at times appalling detail, Hickey showcases the Charlestown that he knows best – crime-ridden slums, rampant drug abuse and the gritty captivity of life, whether in prison or out. To further emphasize the reality, Hickey himself stars in the film, alongside other former residents of the Charlestown projects, Brenden Brennan and Hickey’s childhood friend David Burns.
Indeed, despite a 107-minute runtime, the film does not linger long on the good times, the flash and wealth that come with large-scale drug running. “I don’t want to show that side of it,” Hickey explained. “I want to show how it really is.” How it really is, it should be noted, is not for the faint of heart. Those who are squeamish may have difficulty enduring the rape, brutal beatings, drug overdoses and sheer volume of blood that soaks this film.
While shocking and controversial, the film is not without purpose: “There’s no sugarcoating it. The message needs to get out,” said Vincent Piro, founder of the H.E.A.T. (Heroin Education Awareness Taskforce) Program and the chief probation officer of the Woburn District Court. Piro has joined forces with Hickey in promoting “Oxy-Morons” with the sole mission of educating youths and their parents about the dangers of opioid use.
For many, Oxycontin and its derivatives serve as a “gateway” to heroin, a drug that has similar effects and is cheaper to obtain, but remains far more deadly. This spiral, so luridly depicted in the film, is what Piro and Hickey hope will extinguish any lingering glamor teens may see in prescription pills. As Hickey put it, “Watching them going from a pill to heroin to everyone being dead – that outweighs the rims and the guns and the money.”
While admittedly “loosely” based on his life, the honesty of Hickey’s film shines through, even in the seemingly impossible moments. Hickey’s character miraculously survives a fall off the roof of a multistory housing project, yet the fact of the matter is still more improbable: Hickey himself survived being thrown off an 80-foot cliff by a rival drug dealer. Despite massive internal injuries and doctors’ firm beliefs that he would never walk again, Hickey made a full recovery, though the incident proved to be a much-needed wake-up call: “It took me falling 80 feet to realize that that wasn’t a good life.”
That life is exactly what Hickey, Piro, and their supporters hope to keep future generations away from. Donations from the likes of the Boston Police Department and the Massachusetts Department of Correction allowed Hickey access to police cars, SWAT equipment and jail cells well beyond the film’s limited budget. This intense realism, especially palpable in the grim walls of Barnstable House of Correction, serves the film’s purpose well. “We made it as dark as possible to deter people from going down this path,” Hickey said.
Hickey, now fully recovered from his addiction to Oxycontin, has harsh words for those on the same track. His film closes with a stinging diatribe against the ingrained racism, codes of silence, and criminal culture that dominate “the towns,” perpetuating the violent lifestyles he has worked so hard to escape. “It has an expiration date,” Hickey explained. “You either go to jail, you get killed, or you expire yourself.”
The film is, for Hickey, education first and entertainment second. Far from being limited to the press, the audience for the movie and panel included a couple who would soon be bringing their teenage son, an Oxycontin user, home from rehab. They praised Hickey and Piro for their work in promoting awareness of the drug’s dangers, expressing hope that the film’s raw brutality would discourage future users.
Such is the ultimate goal for the drug dealer and convict turned indie screenwriter. John Hickey has learned from the past and shared that knowledge with the future, in the hopes that we will not be doomed to repeat it. For Vincent Piro, and others like him, who continue their efforts to keep young adults off of heroin and other deadly drugs, even the smallest victory from “Oxy-Morons” is a step in the right direction: “If you can save even one life, everything he’s done, the film, will be worth it.”