Directed by E.L. Katz
Starring Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, Sara Paxton, David Koechner
Review by Jordan
An outstanding love on the festival circuit and home video for E.L. Katz’ directorial debut, the ironically titled Cheap Thrills, led me to grab and watch it with great anticipation and expectation as soon as was possible. An outstanding love, I gathered, through observing the Rotten Tomatoes rating (84% and Certified Fresh) and reading glowing praises from numerous respected publications; but while it certainly holds devastating interest and ratchets the tension before delivering a suitably blunt final shot, I find it impossible that anyone could love this at all…
A black comedy shot through with a nasty streak so fierce you’ll be thanking the film-makers they had the grace to limit the running time to 88 minutes, Cheap Thrills is often horrible to watch as an initially likeable protagonist – broke and fired family man Craig (the always impressive Pat Healy) – and his questionable old friend Vince (Ethan Embry) are seduced into a night of unearthed malice and distrust through the prospect of earning big bucks for quick dares. The darers, a stupendously wealthy couple at home on the far-side of the social divide (Anchorman’s David Koechner and the wonderful Sara Paxton) begin to taunt these two hard-luck stories by having them take shots, get slapped by single females and punched by bouncers for relatively small sums, but before long the stakes have risen dramatically and we have an essay on morality on our hands.
If it sounds smart, in a simple way, that’s because it is. What we have here is a movie that has become instantly notorious and adored by those with strong constitutions because it pulls no punches and goes all the way, forcing it’s audience to consider the decision’s they’d make if put in the same shoes as the battered Craig. Another smart decision, it should go without saying, is the casting of Paxton (who had previously worked with Healy in the masterful The Innkeepers) as the quiet and spoiled birthday girl Violet, who easily draws attention away from the carnage but through her particular liking of Craig reveals a heart that is even blacker; she is one of my favourite actresses currently working and on the verge of a true breakout hit (if it bypassed you, the recent thriller Static is another great example of her understated talent).
When leaving his beloved wife and 15 month old son to head to work on a sunny weekday morning, and even after sadly seeing the eviction notice on their apartment door and later being fired from his mechanics job without warning, there’s no way that Craig could’ve foreseen the diabolical night in store for him, and the curious independent cinema fan who inserts this DVD will be suitably unprepared. This is one potent experience, that revels in debasement and the idea that your friends may not have your back the way you think they do, before asking you if you really have theirs?
It’s easy to contemplate how you’d spend $50,000, but how far would you lower yourself in the course of a minute to earn it? If that questions inspires more than a moment of thought, this may just be a film for you after all.