Review: Cheap Thrills
PLOT: A down on his luck family man and a shifty old acquaintance find themselves caught up in a morbid scenario when a wealthy couple offers them a large sum of money to participate in an increasingly dangerous series of endurance tests and mind games.
REVIEW: This is a nasty little number… Regardless of what you know about E.L. Katz's CHEAP THRILLS, it's even more disturbing, gross and bleakly amusing than you thought imaginable; a movie destined to make you feel bad about yourself for how much you get off on its sick antics and ever-escalating game of "how low can you go." Or maybe that should be "how low can they go?" It's certainly not for everybody, and the people who tap out early may be the better for it. This one makes you feel icky all over.
Imagine if you will this proposition: You're poor, down on your luck, jobless, soon to be homeless, unable to put food on the table. You've really nothing going on in the prospects department, and the only thing more devastating than being kicked out of your home is the idea you've let down your family. And what if you were offered money to do something just a little bit wrong, money that could help you out of your bind? Probably most of us, at our most pathetic, might take that money… And what if you were offered a bit more money to do something, well, just a bit naughtier? What if you were offered lots of money to do something bad?
That's the situation our "hero" Craig (Pat Healy) finds himself in. At the end of his rope, Craig has the misfortune of walking into the wrong bar before the sad slog home to confront his wife with the news he's lost his job and they're practically penniless. At this bar - I reiterate, the wrong bar - he runs into Vince (Ethan Embry), an old friend he hasn't seen in years. Craig and Vince used to be misfits in high school, aimless skateboarding punks, but Craig has done the best he can to escape that existence while Vince, who seems a reasonably happy fellow, still toils in it, working as a brutish debt collector. Their brief bonding over drinks is soon interrupted by the presence of Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton), and that's where Craig's day goes from bad to considerably worse.
Colin and Violet turn out to be a couple of extremely twisted, and extremely rich, sociopaths who get their rocks off betting on vile games of oneupmanship; Colin enthusiastically so, Violet with a vapid "I'm so bored" expression on her face. Colin will bet you to do stupid things, like can you hold your breath longer than the other guy, or who can drink a shot quicker. For these meaningless whims he'll give you $50… but for something more, say, daring, he'll up the reward. Just how daring, and just how willing Craig and Vince are to debase and harm themselves (and each other), is the crux of CHEAP THRILLS' second half.
It's a tricky tone the film pulls off; it's neither comedy nor thriller, though it goes through bouts of both genres at different times. Often the tone of the film is dictated by what the bet is; a ridiculous stunt like going to the bathroom in a stranger's house provokes some chuckles, but naturally as the stunts descend into violence and humiliation, the film's comedic veneer goes away. Additionally, the further the men are willing to go for money, the more the movie's original sense of plausibility gives way to something more perverse and grotesque, where we're no longer able to relate to the original question of "could you see yourself doing this for money?" It's not that CHEAP THRILLS belongs in the horror genre, but there's a mean-spiritedness lurking inside of it that is comparable to the more severe psychological horror movies.
And I couldn't look away, because for all its nastiness CHEAP THRILLS is well made and craftily energetic. It helps a lot that the performances are so sharp, starting with Pat Healy, who perfectly brings to life both Craig's pitiful despair and his sincere yearning for a way out of his jam. It's a startlingly intense turn by Healy, who hopefully reaps the benefits of what's really a star-making part. (Though he's been a steadily working actor for many years.) Ethan Embry is every bit Healy's match, painting Vince as a maniacally enthusiastic scuzzball before stripping back the bravado and revealing a character who is perhaps just as sadly desperate as his old friend. It's a difficult role to pull off, someone we're not sure if we like or detest, and Embry makes it work.
Koechner is rather perfectly cast, because Colin is a very David Koechner-like fellow at first; jovial and silly, just a bit rude but never offensive. When we learn how intent Colin is at seeing his game through to the very end, however, we get to experience a darker side of the ANCHORMAN actor than we probably ever have. As for Paxton, she gives her pretty blonde a chilling layer of pathological evil which is never fully revealed but subtly crawling around right behind the eyes. Violet's cold apathy might be the most horrifying thing about the film.
Walking away from CHEAP THRILLS, I felt conflicted; did I actually enjoy what I just watched? Certainly I appreciate the film's fine performances and the impressive way it alternates between tones, but there's a strange helplessness to the experience of sitting through it, entertaining as it may be. Surely, that's the intent of director Katz and screenwriters Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo, to put you in the shoes of the two men who see their night spiral downward into a heartless abyss, but it's an uncomfortable feeling to be sure. Credit must go to the film's talent behind and before the camera for crafting such a startling film, even if it's not always a thrill to endure.