Genre: Dark Comedy
Length- 88 min
Company: New Artists Alliance / Snowfort Pictures
Craig (Pat Healy) is a mechanic trying to do right by his wife (Amanda Fuller) and their fifteen month old son. When he loses his job and facing eviction, he heads to the bar to drown his sorrows and figure out some way to break the horrible news to his wife. Between drinks, he runs into his old schoolyard friend Vince (Ethan Embry) and the extremely wealthy husband and wife Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton). It's Violet's birthday, and Colin's trying to give her the party of a lifetime.
And that party involves a series of escalating dares that quickly get out of hand . . .
AN UGLY SLICE
There are a lot of words you could use to describe E.L. Katz' directorial debut. It's a brutal, unflinching dark comedy, and yes, it does have some graphic violence and nihilism to spare, but to leave Cheap Thrills as a simple sum of its ugly parts is unfair. There is real humanity at the center of the film and thanks to a smart screenplay by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga, it is simultaneously hilarious and a searing indictment of the everyday class warfare fought by ordinary people just like you and me every single day of their lives.
I do not want to spoil a single minute of this film, so suffice it to say that Colin and Violet are the absolute worst possible result of successful capitalism. It's Violet's birthday, and she has everything she could ever want at her fingertips -- what do you get a girl like that for her birthday? "You improvise", Colin says, and proceeds to come up with a series of terribly random ways to manipulate two desperate men into doing what he wants them to do.
Chirchirillo and Haaga smartly compare Colin and Violet's dares with the exploitive and sometimes sadistic nature of reality television. People eat disgusting things, suffer through their greatest fears and are unceremoniously dumped from celebrity when they no longer entertain. What's disturbing about Cheap Thrills isn't that two movie villains perpetrate such atrocities, but rather that we are already a party to similar games projected in full color and big sound from our own television screens.
What would you do for five hundred dollars? How about a thousand?
And most importantly, when do you STOP playing?
Is it even possible to stop?
Writing: 4 / 5. Chirchirillo and Haaga produce a surprisingly deep story that makes us care enough to continue watching the awful shenanigans on display. Its conclusion is a gut punch, with our two protagonists taking different paths, morally speaking. Which one did the right thing? Does being right have any meaning when faced with such inhumanity?
Directing: 3.5 / 5. Cheap Thrills is E.L. Katz's first directing gig, and he presents the story in a concise, matter of fact manner. While he never actually looks away, sometimes the most horrible things happen just below the camera's eye -- a smart decision. In today's hyperviolent cinema, it's nice to see that at least a little is left to the imagination.
Editing: 3 / 5. Brody Gusar's editing lends the film a wild, frenetic style and when the going gets tough on the screen, it feels twice as effective. My only nitpick is that the film felt a little slow to get going.
Sound/Music: 3 / 5. The sound design is professional throughout, and Mads Heldtberg's score never intrudes and feels organic to the story. Also features "Blood Stains", a song by Agent Orange, whose lyrical content no doubt inspired at least the title of the film.
Acting: 4 / 5. Pat Healy and Sara Paxton are reunited from Ti West's The Innkeepers (check out my review here), and again they are wonderful together onscreen. Healy presents a wholly sympathetic family man and Paxton becomes a sexy question mark of a woman whose motives of which you're never entirely certain. David Koechner steals the show as the cocaine addicted, uber-wealthy Colin, in turns incredibly charismatic and terrifying for his ever rotating moral compass.
Final Grade: 3.5 / 5.
You absolutely must rent Cheap Thrills on RedBox right now . . . or better yet, pick up a DVD for yourself at Amazon!