Director: E. L. Katz
Starring: Pat Healy, Sara Paxton, Ethan Embry, David Koechner
Rating: 5 out of 5 stacks of bloody cash for this sick and satisfying film. Completely unrelenting, darkly funny and truly horrific at times, this movie is both wickedly fun and genuinely disturbing. A dangerous but delicious cocktail of masculinity, money and desperation, the result is intoxicating precisely because the ingredients, when mixed, prove to be so brilliantly toxic.
The film begins with Craig, played by Pat Healy, and his wife and baby. But, the proverbial picture that is painted for us already starts off pretty grim; he is on his way to work when he sees the eviction notice on his door, and he loses his job anyway within a matter of filmic minutes. He runs into Vince, an old friend played by Ethan Embry, at a bar later that day, but their reunion is soon deviously circumvented by Colin and Violet– a mysteriously wealthy couple played by David Koechner and Sara Paxton. The story takes place over the course of the rest of the night as Colin and Violet give the two men increasingly insane dares for increasingly insane sums of money.
First of all, I loved the sense of mystery that the film retained: are Colin and Violet really just doing this for fun, who are they and how do they have so much money anyway? I won’t spoil to what extents those questions are or are not answered. But, the whole thing feels appropriately bleak, which is why I’d consider it a horror movie just as much as a dark comedy. The more animalistic the two men become as they are pitted against one another, even rehashing old gripes from their high school days, the more filled with dread we as viewers become. The money equates to a kind of alpha male dominance, particularly for Craig who needs it to feel like a man, because being a man is to be capable of feeding one’s family and keeping them off the streets.
But, the lengths Craig goes to are the some of the film’s most visceral and terrifying moments, partly because of how extreme the tasks are but also because of who Craig was at the beginning of the movie in conjunction with those extreme tasks– it’s not much of a spoiler to suggest that he starts out pretty meek in comparison to what he becomes thanks to Colin, Violet and even Vince, all of whom test him and taunt him with the promise of cash and the manhood that might implicitly come with that; especially, again, given the specific nature of some of the dares and how they might be executed when no rules are set in place. Healy gives an amazing performance as a family man who sacrifices his own morals and sanity with less and less qualms about doing so as the film progresses; the question of who he will be by the end of the night (and how he will even return to his family after such a night) is answered somewhat by the film’s chilling final shot, which I definitely won’t say more about other than the fact that it is sly and smart and unbelievably effective.
The film never slips into redundancy either; the dares not only increase in craziness but they are also each very different from one another– some of them are even so spontaneous, that anything that happens over the course of the night could easily alter the nature of the next task and the next amount of money offered. Plus, the variety of the dares also allows for a range of responses within and between viewers– you never know which one will serve as the most nauseating gut punch. It depends on who you are and what you would do if you were in the same situation, perhaps.
Cheap Thrills is propelled by its careful but furious pacing and it is framed in ways that are more meaningful and artful than one might expect. Its narrative is sustained by its unpredictability and by the performances of its main players. Cheap Thrills’ main achievement though might be how meticulously and intelligently it spirals out of control into the darkest depths of human nature, leaving audiences feeling both giddy and grossed out, uneasy but undeniably exhilarated.