cheap_thrills_3Year: 2014
Director: E.L. Katz
Writer(s): David Chirchirillo, Trent Haaga
Region of Origin: U.S.
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: Unrated
Digital, Color, 88 mins

Synopsis: 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. (Source)

Cheap Thrills is as much of a dare as it is a film. Starting innocently enough before progressing into its shocking and unforgettable climax, the film is a challenge to laugh at the way greed corrupts on both ends of the spectrum, from the obscenely wealthy down to the most desperate and most broken everyman. Inherently, the film finds what binds both sides together, posing how far we’d go for an extra buck. Think of Breaking Bad’s moral ambiguity crossed with the irreverently funny nihilism of Fight Club, and you’ve got a good idea of what director E.L. Katz is using as a starting point. But despite its pitch black premise, the film is deceitfully funny from start to finish, making us hate ourselves for laughing along without ever being preachy. In essence, Cheap Thrills has its cake and eats it too, straddling a genre-bending line between crowd-pleasing obscenity and morality play about the darkness that threatens to consume us all. Oh yeah, and consider this your warning: this one isn’t for those with a weak stomach!

The plot concerns a struggling family man named Craig (Pat Healy). As a failed writer and freshly laid-off, minimum-wage mechanic, the defeated Craig heads to a local bar where he finds an old friend, Vince (Ethan Embry). Together the two meet a wealthy couple named Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton), who are out celebrating Violet’s birthday. The couple immediately offer the pair of old friends a few innocent dares for money, which progressively turn more sinister and violent as the stakes get higher. Soon Craig and Vince find themselves unwittingly pulled into a web of dangerous competition, each trying to earn themselves a new life through debasement and despair.

From start to finish, what makes the film so irresistible is the way it equates horror, laughs and suspense as the same thing, using perfect comedic timing to create unbearable tension. This is the kind of film where you laugh out of reflex to keep yourself sane as it goes further into madness. Director E.L. Katz keeps the film’s pace moving fast, with each dare slowly telling us more about the characters and the film’s themes with plenty of nuance and layers. The script by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo is minimal storytelling at its best, almost unfolding like a single-setting play which offers no escape; and as the film spirals completely off the rails, Katz deft control of tone is masterful. The further each character is stripped of any sort of dignity, the deeper the film gets into its sly, experiential dissection on the value we place on each other and our own desires. In the hands of anyone else, this could’ve easily been empty depravity, but is instead one of the sharpest reflections of the brutal economic times we live in, as well as our own fascination with demented thrills.

cheap_thrills_4Selling the entire thing, is a true ensemble cast of actors who deliver performances unlike anything we’ve ever seen from them before. As the central character with the most obvious transformation, Pat Healy’s Craig gets to show a completely new side of himself. The film hinges on his desperation as a relatable family man, but he unleashes a more sinister side of himself that’s truly terrifying because we can wholly understand what would lead him down such a brutal path. His comedic timing is at the peak of its powers here, yet every laugh is as dark as it gets and played straight faced. As Craig’s old friend Vince, Ethan Embry plays a character who at first fits the role of a stereotypical loser-type until more unexpected circumstances take him to new places. Embry has a charm and endearing nature despite his rough exterior and darker overtones. Pulling the strings, David Koechner and Sara Paxton as Colin and Violet (respectively) get to play two disparate characters, each finding their own kind of perverse pleasure in the proceedings. Both are mesmerizing in their polar-opposite reactions to what’s going on, as well as creating two instantly memorable crazies.

Cheap Thrills is a masterwork of sorts, made to be seen in a crowded-theatre with laughs darker than an empty sky and with the kind of edge-of-your-seat tension that would’ve made Hitchcock proud. On every level, the film is one of the nastiest, meanest things you’ll see all year, but also ambitious and breathlessly executed, racing along with deranged conviction. Cheap Thrills is the kind of film that dares you to not be affected – a pointed dialogue for its brave viewers full of brilliant performances, shocking questions and an ending that’ll stick with you for days.

Crome Rating: 4.5/5