It’s a constant mystery to me how some quality genre films slip beneath the waves almost unnoticed. Cheap Thrills was one of those, receiving a UK release only barely a handful of screens and becoming just another entry on one of those gloating listicles of films that made only a few hundred quid on their theatrical releases. It possible isn’t helped by not fitting comfortably into genre categories. It’s the kind of film that horror fans might enjoy, but it isn’t a horror film. It’s very funny, but it’s funny in a very cutting way that isn’t comfortable. Once upon a time a film like this might have found its audience at the video rental store. But in these days of declining physical media sales, streaming is primary outlet and if the deals aren’t quite right a film just disappears.
So here is my review of Cheap Thrills – originally written for the now defunct Chris and Phil Presents website – to try and keep the fire burning.
Director E.L. Katz’s confident debut feature opens with a sketch of domestic bliss as Craig (Pat Healy) awakes to what appears to be a pretty nice life, happily married with a young child upon whom he dotes. But appearances can be deceiving, Craig’s life is fraying at the edges, something revealed when he leaves for work and finds an eviction notice nailed to the front door. The bad day gets worse when he is ‘downsized’ out of his job. Unable to confront his wife with the news they will be on the street in days if they cannot find rent money, he flees into a dive bar to drown his sorrows. There he bumps into an old friend Vince (Ethan Embry) and shares his woes.
The two men haven’t seen each other in a while and Craig finds out Vince is a low level debt collector. In a chilling exchange Craig asks him how much debt someone would need to be into before someone like him would actually hurt them. Vince, who up to this point seems to be a quote/unquote ‘good bloke’ replies: “I once broke a guy’s arm for eighty five bucks… in front of his kid.”
It’s not looking good for our stressed out protagonist, but then the pair meet Colin (David Koechner) a coked-up idiot in a pork pie hat with a fat billfold and disinterested blonde (Sara Paxton) in toe. Caught in the tight coils of a cocaine bender Colin is blithely throwing money away on stupid bets: three hundred dollars for the first guy to slap a stripper’s ass, that sort of thing. Vince senses opportunity dragging his unwilling friend out with the pair who challenge them to perform a variety of foolishness for money. So kicks off a rapid downward spiral of irresponsible behaviour.
Cheap Thrills is a savage Juvenalian satire casting a bloodshot eye across a culture it views as debased and self obsessed, where reality TV sets the tone for social interactions and behaviour. In Jonathan Swift’s celebrated essay, A Modest Proposal, the satirist suggested that the people of Ireland ease their economic woes by selling their children as meat to the gentry. Cheap Thrills is a modern twist on this idea, neatly flipping it to explore the depths of depravity a man might sink to in order to safeguard his family. Of course it also poses a darker question, might a man use his family to justify exploring his darkest impulses?
One of the great strengths of screenwriters David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga’s excellent story, is that it is provocative but focussed. Many satirical comedies (Bobcat Goldthwaite’s God Bless America for example) come on like mad hobos standing in the street screaming at passerbys… including disinterested dogs and the occasional pigeon. Cheap Thrills is just not like that, it picks its targets and baits its traps carefully. There is an obvious focal metaphor about the idle rich preying upon the poor and desperate, but this isn’t merely a left wing tract. Craig and Vince are not actually innocent victims but are complicit in their actions, and by extension the audience is complicit in enjoying the onscreen carnage.
For much of its tight running length Cheap Thrills is constantly surprising and inventive. The plot unfolds with a steady stream of reversals that are often wickedly delightful. A standout scene flips the familiar ‘how much money would it take for you to…?’ moral dilemma on its head by having Craig and Vince undercutting each other on a particularly gruesome dare so the question becomes ‘how little money would it take for you to…?’ Perhaps the final act locks into a groove a bit too tightly, but the closing shot of the film packs a punchline that will knock the fillings from your teeth.
Performances are good all round, the actors have been given meaty roles to inhabit. Healy will be known to many as the uber-creep from Compliance and he suckers the audience into accepting Craig as an uncomplicated guy in a tight spot before opening an abyss under his feet. Ethan Embry was not an actor I was familiar with, but he makes Vince more than just the meathead he initially appears to be. Sara Paxton previously appeared with Healy in Ti West’s The Innkeepers, but her pretty looks have more often consigned her to stock ‘hot body’ roles in crap like Shark Night 3D. However, while Violet initially appears to be merely a vacuous trophy wife, there is a lot more to the character. Finally Koechner starts wild and just gets wilder as the instigator of madness. The most familiar face in the cast having played Champ Kind in two Anchorman films as well as Todd Packer in the US version of The Office. Koechner is a gifted comic actor who becomes a Ralph Steadman drawing made flesh here.
Cheap Thrills is a down’n’dirty, cocaine-fuelled, Gonzo version of Indecent Proposal. Like the tequila consumed in the film it goes down smoothly, causes bad behaviour and leaves a nasty hangover with a lingering sense of shame.