Director: E.L. Katz, Screenwriters: Trent Haaga, David Chirchirillo
Recently fired and facing eviction, the married father of a newborn has his life turned upside down when he meets a wealthy couple who offer a path to financial security…but at a price. (film synopsis from sxsw.com)
WHO’S IT FOR?: Have you ever wanted to see the schoolyard game of "dare" taken to the extreme? Cheap Thrills delivers smart, biting social commentary without losing an ounce of entertainment.
How far would you go to provide for your family? What would you do for that extra buck you so urgently need? In his directorial debut, E.L. Katz creates a twisted game that pits desperate people against one another for the sheer enjoyment of those who have the money and power to do so. It's heavy, if obvious, stuff that succeeds in not only horrifying but also entertaining through a trio of excellent performances and a pitch perfect pace that never feels too slow or too fast. Cheap Thrills cleverly plays with its tone by toying the line between dark comedy and insane brutality but not in ways that you might think. This is a film that pushes moral boundaries and actually has something intelligent to say other than simply meeting the standard quota of blood and guts.
Cheap Thrills represents an absolute game changing moment in the careers of Pat Healy, Ethan Embry and Dave Koechner. All three give career best performances in roles that will challenge your understanding of what humanity is capable of. Healy plays regular dude, Craig, who's an aspiring writer struggling with a new kid, crappy job and a looming eviction. When an opportunity to make a little money through a competitive game of “dare” presents itself, Craig has to decide how far is too far. As the tests begin to escalate in both violence and depravity, we have to believe Craig's journey from everyman to desperate father willing to do whatever is necessary to help his family. Healy comes through with a brilliantly relatable yet dark performance of a man pushed to his moral limit.
Paired up with Healy is a virtually unrecognizable Ethan Embry as Craig's old friend, Vince whose rough exterior comes from a troubled, violent life. I'm not sure what hole they dug Embry out of, but he's a completely different beast this time out with a furious rage not seen in past performances. He's a man who has seen and done terrible things, naturally he's a favorite in this sort of contest fueled by greed and the allure of power even more than necessity. Koechner plays wonderfully against type shedding most of his typical comedy shenanigans for something a bit more sinister and brooding. His Colin is one half of a bored, rich couple (the other half played by a subdued, nearly silent Sara Paxton) on the prowl for some entertainment in form of two poor chaps who seem like they could use a few bucks. He's pulling the strings, always luring these poor guys towards the next devastating challenge all in the name of money.
The film is delightfully entertaining even when it starts to get ugly, but once you understand what the film is really going for, the final third suffers a bit becoming a little predictable. I think it's much more about watching what exactly happens and how it plays out more than any sort of big narrative statement. There's a moment about halfway through the film involving an especially nasty challenge that elicits an amazing reaction from Healy that will rope you in for the rest of the bloody ride. Cheap Thrills does wonders by utilizing a great cast and a simple premise to explore bigger thematic ideas that should spur some fascinating real life discussions about the economy, greed and the state of the class divide right now in the country. And remember it's OK to laugh.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10
Tyler Mager currently reviews movies for CollegeMovieReview.com and comics for Gutters and Panels. He's also an aspiring screenwriter and filmmaker based out of Austin, TX. Follow him on twitter @tylermager.