Cheap Thrills (2013)
Directed by E.L. Katz
Cheap Thrills is the sadistically comedic directorial debut of longtime screenwriter E.L. Katz which explores the ideas of just how far any of us would go if offered the right asking price and whether or not we as human beings truly delight in the suffering of others. Featuring a well-known cast who all deliver transformative and exemplary performances and a wickedly entertaining script by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo, Cheap Thrills is a slick and thought-provoking journey of two friends who are willing to put it all on the line in order to score a huge payday when they meet two gamblers who offer to pay them both to humiliate themselves and ultimately each other for sport.
At the start we meet down-on-his luck Craig (Pat Healy) who’s an aspiring writer that just can’t seem to catch a break; his wife has been out of work, he’s got a toddler to provide for and the bills keep piling up- not to mention he’s just been fired from his day job at a local garage. In an effort to drown his sorrows and figure out what’s next, Craig heads to a dive bar for a drink only to run into his old pal Vince (Ethan Embry) who he hasn’t seen in some time and has been given a raw deal in life too.
After catching up, the two friends meet party couple Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton) who are out celebrating Violet’s birthday. Turns out their idea of a good time is placing bets on the human behavior of strangers, with the bigger the dare, the bigger the payday.
At first, Craig and Vince can hardly believe their luck as they score some cash here and there after small challenges- getting a local bar skank to slap them, punching a bouncer (Todd Farmer- AWESOME) and that sort of trivial stuff. Things escalate rather quickly once Colin and Violet take the party to their home and before they know it, the two life-long friends become mixed up in the increasingly tense and violent game once they discover that Colin and Violet are willing to shell out some big bucks if Craig and Vince are willing to keep the ‘party’ going.
To say anything further would be an absolute disservice to Cheap Thrills but suffice to say, just when you think you’ve seen everything- Katz raises the stakes again and again, creating a palpable tension that simmers over with an uncomfortable tenacity during the film’s blistering final act.
Cheap Thrills is the kind of movie this writer goes to SXSW for each year- it’s surprising, clever and far more intuitive than its rather simple concept suggests as Katz ends up brilliantly exploring the idea of how we all in some way or another delight in the misfortunes of others, something that has increased throughout the years with the advent of certain technologies like the internet and YouTube or television series like “Fear Factor,” “Wipeout” and their ilk.
Twenty years ago, our personal humiliations were just that- our own- but now the internet has globalized our society so that we can laugh at the weirdos at a random Walmart anywhere in the world, make fun of the “Leave Britney Alone” kid or watch Joe Rogan ask someone to gobble up goat testicles and call it entertainment.
The difference though between (most of) us and Colin and Violet is that generally we have a line that we would draw as to how far we’d probably go, but these characters simply don’t, which makes it almost more fascinating because by definition they’re the villains in Cheap Thrills but are never written as such. That subtlety is what makes the film so effective, often exploring a wonderfully unexpected and uneasy dynamic among all these characters that effectively keeps the audience unsure of what Colin and Violet will come up with for their two contestants next.
As far as directorial debuts go, it’s evident that Katz’s career as a screenwriter over the last nine or so years, as well as his lifelong love of genre cinema, has served him well as he delivers a truly confident and well-crafted slice of subversive cinema. As mentioned before, the quartet of leads that Katz has assembled for Cheap Thrills is absolutely revelatory; they’re all actors I’m very familiar with, and yet, because of their transformative performances, they’re almost unrecognizable at the same time (Embry being the biggest surprise- the dude has dieseled up since his Can’t Hardly Wait days).
Koechner, who is a longtime favorite of this writer due to his brilliant comedic chops, is an absolute marvel; and hopefully this is a role that proves something I’ve suspected for a long time- the dude can seriously act when given the right material. Not that his comedy roles don’t require a certain timing and ability (two things Koechner has always excelled at), but in Cheap Thrills he plays Colin almost like the lovable buffoon we’d be expecting, but as his intentions slowly are revealed, we also get glimpses of Colin’s true sardonic nature, almost like paint chipping away on an old façade. Just some masterful stuff from Koechner and here’s hoping this leads to more roles like this for him in the future.
Both Healy and Embry have an instantaneous chemistry with each other, making it very easy to believe the strained and yet still loyal friendship between them; the two characters couldn’t be more different from the other (Craig being the meek family guy who has the weight of the world on his sad-sack shoulders and Vince being the sarcastic brutish thug who just loves pushing everyone’s buttons), but there are some truly great moments in Cheap Thrills where you almost get a role reversal between Healy’s and Embry’s characters, making for some compelling moments that only add to the intensity of the game between the two long-time pals.
And Paxton, who has often been associated with playing the “good girl” in genre flicks, takes all those preconceptions and shoves them right up our… well, you get it. But anyone who has followed Paxton’s career will undoubtedly be startled and mesmerized by the young actress’ performance in Cheap Thrills– oh, and for anyone who may be excited to see Healy and Paxton reunite after their adorable work together in Ti West’s The Innkeepers, let’s just say you are in for some real surprises here.
Cheap Thrills is everything you’d want out of a satirical thriller and more; it’s also a remarkable directorial debut by Katz, who delivers one hell of a story that was continuously surprising, shocking and visceral with wildly unexpected events that were often played out with a quiet restraint. Anchored by Koechner, Healy, Embry and Paxton and a subtle and thought-provoking script that often teetered between madness, desperation and exhilaration, Cheap Thrills is absolutely a film worth seeking out once Drafthouse Films announces their distribution plans later this year and certainly the kind of movie you want to experience with a packed theater.
4 out of 5