Written by: David Chirchirillo, Trent Haaga
Directed by: E.L. Katz
Starring: Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, and Sara Paxton
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
What doesn't kill you makes you richer.
Cheap Thrills is a nasty movie. I don’t mean that it’s a gross-out movie, even though it is pretty stomach churning at times. Rather, it’s a mean, bleak little exercise that wallows in the deepest pits of human nature—and then has the nerve to laugh about it. Naturally, I’m a fan.
Directed with ruthless efficiency from a lean, relentless script, Cheap Thrills follows two friends during their night from hell. Craig (Pat Healy) has hit rock bottom: after failing as a writer, he loses his day job, and his family (which includes a 15-month old son) faces eviction. His buddy Vince hasn’t fared much better since high school, having worked jobs that have him shaking down people who owe money. When the two run into each other for the first time in five years, they have a few drinks before meeting Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton), an affluent couple out on the town for the latter’s birthday. But what do you get the girl who already has everything? Apparently, you troll bars for two dopes desperate enough to do anything for money.
Like any well-constructed thriller, Cheap Thrills thrives on escalation. Craig and Vince initially find themselves doing innocuous stuff for the couple’s amusement, like downing shots for $20. Soon, they’re being challenged to harass women for bigger sums before graduating to punching out a bouncer (Todd Farmer, cameoing magnificently). Watching the dares spiral out of control is among the film’s chief pleasures, even if you’re inclined to watch some of the more outrageous acts through your fingers. Both thrilling and cringe-worthy all at once, Cheap Thrills toes a difficult line between “entertaining” and “disturbing,” a rare sweet spot that’s difficult to hit. Director E.L. Katz insists upon thrusting the audience right into the fray with both economic pacing and tight, invasive camerawork. You feel like the fly on a wall during the most fucked-up party imaginable.
Much of its effectiveness also rests on the strong performances of the principal cast. Healy and Embry are especially fascinating as a pair of opposites circling each other in their race to the bottom. Along the way, they inspire the best and worst of each other, with each proving to be more than their initial exteriors suggest. Still smarting from his recent firing and burdened by his financial troubles, Craig at first is a meek but affable sad-sack who stands in stark contrast to his more self-assured, devil-may-care friend.
Healy’s low-key demeanor sells both his affability and his quiet desperation, while Embry oozes a sort of sleazy confidence. As both engage in this deranged competition, they begin to rub off on each other: suddenly, Craig isn’t as mild-mannered as he once appeared, and Vince has moments that hint at his own limits. Sometimes, it feels as if the film dares you to sympathize with one over the other, only to pull the rug out from under you, leaving you flat on your bruised and blood-spattered face as you realize you’ve just enjoyed watching human beings destroy each other.
In that respect, the film slyly positions us with Craig and Vince’s company, the demented husband and wife duo paying them to perform these increasingly heinous deeds. Again, these two are polar opposites. Playing off of his funnyman persona, Koechner is a deranged ringleader—he’s part carnie, part car salesman, and all gregarious scumbag. In a departure from her previous roles, Paxton languishes in the background, perpetually above the proceedings as she fiddles on her phone, offering only the slightest glances in the direction of this horror show that’s been put on for her amusement. When she becomes more involved in the proceedings, she only becomes more enigmatic: Paxton occasionally finds a glimmer of sympathy in her eyes, but it still feels false and manipulative. She’s a deceptive predator lying in wait; her husband is the lure.
Behind every insane man, there’s an insane woman, I suppose. In a movie dedicated to having men savage each other for the amusement of this girl, you wish she were a bit more than an avatar for our voyeuristic tendencies. Then again, Cheap Thrills is something of a twisted morality play whose characters and events reflect whatever one projects onto it: economic disparity, the vapidity of our culture’s need to compulsively watch, the corresponding, prevailing willingness to give us something to watch as long as the price is right. To be so lean, Cheap Thrills provides a lot to chew on. In one of its nastiest moments, it does so quite literally.
Since it arrives in the context of troubling economic times, it’s most tempting to examine it as a savage allegory for capitalism. It lays these preoccupations rather bare, as the rich actually prey on the poor by pitting them against each other. Reaganomics have never seemed more absurd than they are here, where two guys soon show that they will do anything to each other for money. Predictably, the only thing that trickles down is blood as the Los Angeles skyline broods in the background, simultaneously a tantalizing symbol of opportunity and a representation of lost hope. Fittingly, it rests in the distance as the film unfolds in dingy bars, ratty apartments, and a deceptively swanky house in the hills. Its true glamour stays out of reach unless one is willing to sacrifice their dignity to succeed—in this respect, it’s a cousin to the likes of Starry Eyes.
However, Cheap Thrills stands more comfortably alongside of similarly-themed economic parables like Killing Them Softly and Nightcrawler in its exploration of capitalism’s seedy underbelly. It’s an especially dark and despairing place here, so much so that you have to laugh at it; after all, that might be the only defense mechanism against the notion that you might similarly debase yourself for similar riches. Like any potent moral thriller, Cheap Thrills hits you where it hurts: it both the guts and the brains as it leaves you both nauseated and disquieted. Buy it!
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