Remember that old Simpsons’ episode that involved Mr. Burns recruiting Homer as his “prank monkey” and he basically threw money at Homer as a way to make him perform pranks on others and humiliate himself acts? It’s not one of their great episodes by any means, but that isn’t the point, as that premise is basically the story of Cheap Thrills, but given the “dark and gritty” treatment that people seem to love these days.
Cheap Thrills is a darkly-comedic thriller following the downward spiraling night of Craig (Pat Healy), an aspiring writer, and recently fired auto mechanic facing eviction from his apartment (and if that wasn’t enough, he is also the father of a baby that Audrey (Amanda Fuller), his wife, is too busy taking care of at home). After getting fired, he goes to a bar and bumps into an old high school friend, Vince (Ethan Embry); they both catch up, but things get interesting when they meet a rich couple, Colin and Violet (David Koechner and Sara Paxton, respectively). They begin a game, giving Craig and Vince money for doing certain tasks, starting innocently enough with whoever takes a shot first, but things escalate from there, going into some very, very dark territory.
Like any good thriller, it’s best to go into Cheap Thrills not knowing much because it would be a disservice to the shock-and-awe factor of the material. Seeing how far Craig and Vince are willing to go for money are enthralling and despite how darker and darker the acts get, it gets equally as harder to look away.
The film is impressive in multiple aspects. The writing by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo does very well setting up very realistic characters, and beautifully intensifying the situation without getting ridiculous, as well as keeping the plot unpredictable scene to scene. The big theme of the film is questioning how far one would go for the ones they love and how much pain could one take for money. It’s not the most original topic of discussion, but the film pulls it off very effectively. Another thought provoking element of the film is the subtle issue of economic divide. You have an exceptionally rich couple using two down-on-their-luck men for their own amusement, but it doesn’t necessarily end there. There is also a brief confrontation between the two friends at a very sour point in the film, where Vince points out that despite him dropping out of high school and being involved in the wrong people, while Craig had his life and college education handed to him by his parents, yet they both ended up in the same place, doing dehumanizing things to themselves so they can earn money that they both need. It isn’t necessary, but it adds quite a bit of depth to a film that works just fine as an entertaining thriller.
The acting is fantastic across the board. Pat Healy plays for a great sympathetic and desperate lead that becomes more and more compromised as the film goes on. Ethan Embry also does well with showing his desire to connect with an old friend and how they slowly drift apart. Sara Paxton is captivating as Violet, the wife of Colin; she does not say a lot, but her stares and very presence makes your eyes go directly to her in every scene she’s in. David Koechner is probably the biggest surprise. Given that he is mostly known for his comedic work, I expected him to be hammy and over-the-top with his performance as a slimy rich guy, but I was surprised how restrained and human he made the character, which ultimately made him that much more realistic and terrifying.
The film also marks the feature length directing debut of E.L. Katz, and oh boy, what an entrance. It’s hard enough to make a lasting impression with a directorial debut, but it’s even harder to debut with a film that has to balance dark humor, thrills, though-provoking ideas and dirty, grimy entertainment. He manages to create an intense and suspenseful atmosphere, while also allowing for some genuinely funny moments. It’s a hard thing to do in general, even for veteran filmmakers, but E.L. Katz pulls it off masterfully, keeping you invested and guessing how the film will go on.
Cheap Thrills is a film you can describe with many words. It’s funny, intense, disturbing, dark, violent, unpleasant, nasty, entertaining and smart. However, it’s also not for everyone, and it is very understandable if the movie is not someone’s cup of tea; it’s very much part of the nature of being a dark comedy. And at a mere 88 minutes of runtime, the film is kept sharp and tight with every scene having a purpose. For a film so bluntly called Cheap Thrills, it magnificently provides what the title promises, but also so much more.
Side Note: One of the co-writers of the film, Trent Haaga, is a veteran of Troma Entertainment, and some of the humor in the film is very reminiscent of the Troma style. He is mostly known for co-starring in the 1999 Troma film, Terror Firmer, co-writing/assistant directing Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV, as well as being one of the writers on Lloyd Kaufman’s book, Make Your Own Damn Movie! And given the acclaim that Cheap Thrills has received premiering at SXSW 2013, it’ll be interesting to see if there will be more mainstream attention towards Troma filmmakers, both veterans and currently involved, especially since James Gunn, who started off his career by co-writing Tromeo and Juliet, is now writing and directing the new Marvel film, Guardians of the Galaxy, which is set to release later this year.