Cheap Thrills (15)
Directed by: E.L. Katz
Starring: Pat Healy, Ethan Embry & Sara Paxton
Running time: 88 min
A scheming couple put a struggling family man and his old friend through a series of increasingly twisted dares over the course of an evening at a local bar.
Occasionally there is that gem of a film that manages to slip through the radar–a diamond in the rough–smothered amongst a colossal bombardment of other, bigger budgeted films supported by a big enough promotional budget to perform a coup d’état; working in the background, slovenly churning away at the marketing cogs with competition becoming a cesspit for ruthless publicity and promotion. It leaves smaller films in limbo–like a lamb to the slaughter–for the average Joe (in this case, Joe being the metaphorical film). Cheap Thrills may not receive the attention it deserves upon its initial release but just like every Tucker and Dale vs Evil, and John Dies At The End it will continue to receive plaudits and gain new fans through word-of-mouth due to its taut, original screenplay (written by David Chirichirillo and Trent Haaga), and a great directorial debut for E.L. Katz (the film won the Audience choice award at SXSW).
The premise is simple really and director E.L. Katz does not beat about the bush in setting up the main bulk of the story. Cheap Thrills follows Craig (Pat Healy), a family man who is struggling financially; who has just had his final eviction notice handed to him due to failing to keep up-to-date with payments and on top of this he has just been fired from his job. This leads him to the local bar to drown his sorrows when he bumps into his old friend Vince, whom he has not seen in five years (portrayed by the criminally underrated Ethan Embry). They sit and play catch up and are eventually invited to sit and have drinks with the elusively charming and ridiculously wealthy stranger, Colin (the excellent David “whammy” Koechner), along with his mysterious wife Violet (Sara Paxton).
The somewhat enigmatic couple eventually engage the two friends in what can initially be seen as innocuous dares in exchange for a quick couple of bucks. However, what first appears to be a jovial pursuit in earning some easy cash; winning boisterous bets based on cheap thrills gradually turns into something much more sinister and ominous. With each challenge upping the ante in terms of reward and extremities, these bets not only test the boundaries of a mutual friendship, but also explore the depravity of how far two men are willing go to obtain what essentially seems like easy money in terms of their morality, their dignity and their respect, when taunted and consumed by greed.
The film walks a very fine line between the bleakly comedic and the downright macabre; flirting with topical issues based on hierarchical social structures and stereotypes such as class, education and social expectations based on situational factors and how peoples’ lives don’t always pan out the way they expected.
The film also looks at the philosophical nature of what lies at the surface of all individuals’ psyche in terms of selfishness and selflessness. It is easy and convenient to condemn the selfish greed that one sees all around them, living in a society that worships success, celebrity and money.
But what of the greed within? Are we not all greedy in some way? For Craig and Vince their want for money is fundamentally about survival. For Craig it is about being able to look after his family and offer financial stability as the patriarchal breadwinner to his wife and their child. For Vince his fiscal needs are based on prospects of a better life, working a job that doesn’t entail the risk of getting killed on a daily basis (he is a repo man). Thus, it is when one denies and projects their own greed in the form of these types of natural excuses that it becomes most dangerous as becomes a prominent theme in the film.
David Koechner’s character, Colin, and his wife, Violet, can be seen at the other side of the bar in terms of the present day rich and poor divide, being so goddamned filthy rich that they are pretty much immune to the unwritten rules that are placed upon society and they see their money is simply a tool to buy themselves out of any situation. This also plays on the power relational aspect of the societal hierarchy in a general aspect.
What prevents the film deteriorating into a dark, gore-infested, outright shock-horror film is the director’s decision to prevent the film from straying off the original premise which is essentially a character study and in keeping with these fundamental monetary themes based on the polar opposites of the wealthy and the poor and this is what retains the audience’s attention and emotional connection to the characters and therefore it’s not just about the brutality, the gore and the shocks.
If you are into black comedy – dark comedy that has a lot social of commentary, but manages to push the limits of these abject themes – then this is definitely a film worth checking out. It looks at the morals of the powerful exploiting the powerless through a warped lynchian-esque perspective.
The premise is simple but the execution, writing and acting are perfectly executed; the combination of these elements is a key factor in making this an enjoyable watch.
4 out of 5 Nerds