Director E. L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills is an incredibly timely and unexpectedly thrilling dark comedy which goes to places that you never expect. An astute and wicked journey, it’s shot with a keen eye for the absurd and the grotesque.
The script by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga centres on a family man named Craig (Pat Healy putting in an exceptional performance). On the day Craig finds an eviction notice on his front door, and is determined to ask for a raise at work in order to cover his family’s costs, he finds himself made redundant. Desolate and desperate, he goes to a bar to have a drink as he can’t bring himself to face his wife and their newborn child. By luck, he runs into his old friend Vince (Ethan Embry on top form). They are soon approached by a strange couple who buys them a round of drinks – Colin and Violet who are out celebrating Violet’s birthday. Over an increasingly strange night, the two will put Craig and Vince through a series of dares that will test the friends’ desperate need for money with progressively odder challenges.
Fitting snugly within the current social climate, Cheap Thrills acts as both social commentary and black comedy without ever becoming preachy. The tight set-up allows Katz to pile on the tension as the evening keeps taking ever stranger turns, and because the characters are so well defined, he’s able to elicit responses from the audience that otherwise would not be possible.
The opposing characters of Craig and Vince create a tension throughout the night that undoubtedly plays with the moral expectations of the audience: while the two start off as fairly wide archetypes, the script throws in hints throughout the film to suggest that the moral core of these characters might not be what the audience expects. Craig’s role as a failed author is reminiscent of James Mason’s hidden personality in Bigger Than Life; the blame may be attributed to the experimental drugs his character is given, there is the cruel suggestion that all the drugs have done is release some subconscious personality traits. Vince, on the other hand, might start the film of as typical alpha male but grows at the film goes along, becoming much more interesting.
Although Sara Paxton’s Violet is largely silent throughout the movie, letting the fast-talking, charmer with a glint in his eye Colin (played by David Koechner) dominate, she still manages to bring a depth to the character which builds throughout. Through gestures, looks and lines delivered with sly knowing, it’s obvious that Violet is as involved and in control as Colin – never an unwilling participant or forced audience member but both manipulator and thrill-seeker.
The dares within the film work well – rather than being gross and grotesque for the sake of shocking the audience, each one fits within the frame of the story in pushing our duo further into weird moral territory. There is a moment in the second act on which hangs a very delicate balance and it’s to the credit of the four leads that this climax works rather than playing out as cheap and sleazy.
Perhaps the greatest pleasure of the evening comes from watching the tight, taut script handled with such expertise by Katz. What could have been a straight thriller or just a mumble-core drama straddles a razor sharp line between satire, black comedy and thriller building up to a climax and a final image that will be impossible for the audience to get out of their heads.
An incredible achievement, Cheap Thrills is the sort of film that makes you want to applaud as soon as it ends – filled with great lines, terrific acting and the sort of cheap thrills you never thought you’d see , it is a must for anyone with a penchant for the darker side of cinema.
Watch the trailer: