The Movie Waffler New Release Review - <i>Cheap Thrills</i> | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - Cheap Thrills

A rich couple tests how far a pair of hard up men are willing to go for money.

Directed by: EL Katz
Starring: Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, Sara Paxton, David Koechner, Amanda Fuller

Craig's (Healy) day isn't going so well; he's been threatened with eviction unless he can pay $4,500 in overdue rent and he's been let go from his mechanic's job. While drowning his sorrows in a bar, he meets Vince (Embry) an old friend from his youth. The two are joined by Colin (Koechner) and Violet (Paxton), a rich couple who are happy to throw around a seemingly endless supply of money. Colin begins to offer Craig and Vince money in return for completing "dares", which start out small but, after retiring to Colin's home in the Hollywood hills, the game escalates, as Colin and Violet test the limits of just how much Craig and Vince are willing to degrade themselves for money.
America, we're often told, doesn't have a class system. If this is the case then why do so many American movies lazily fall back on the narrative device of pitting poor (read "good") people against rich (read "evil")? Cheap Thrills tackles the issue of class in America but thankfully refuses to settle for such a simplistic, black and white approach; everyone's been corrupted by money in this tale. Craig is far from the working class hero we might expect; his first action upon losing his job is to head for a bar and get wasted, rather than return home to his suffering wife and infant child.
Craig's desperate situation makes him an easy target for Colin and Violet's sick little game. Even when he's amassed the magic number of $4,500, he sticks around, using the excuse of needing money to cover the next few months' rent until he gets back on his feet; but really he's been willingly sucked into the most perverse of get rich quick schemes. Vince has no family to take care of; his desire to win the money is motivated by an inferiority complex. He knows Craig feels superior to him and wants to show he can beat his old buddy. Colin and Violet have the two men exactly where they want them.
Cheap Thrills is one of the year's most gripping movies, save for a 20 minute spell in the middle when things get a little too ludicrous and director EL Katz opts for cheap grossout shock tactics. Colin and Violet's "dares" aren't quite as well thought out and inventive as they could have been but it's what's bubbling under the surface of the film that makes it so interesting. There's no cheap 1% style sloganeering offered here, no smug working class self-pity indulged. By the end of the film the character we resent the most is the one we've been asked to empathise with. Katz affords us a glance in the wing mirror of our about to be repossessed car, and the face looking back is far from pretty.
The central acting quartet turns in a great ensemble performance. Healy has tackled similar material before in movies like Compliance and Great World of Sound, and here he cements his status as America's most under-rated actor. The rest are working outside their comfort zones; Paxton and Embry are former teen stars, while Koechner has long been associated with a far less sophisticated brand of comedy.
Though it lacks that extra touch of invention that might have elevated Cheap Thrills to a future cult classic, the script is tightly wound and allows its plot to uncoil in a clever manner. Katz uses simple images to convey character details and move the story forward - a discarded cash note in a toilet bowl, subtle glances between Colin and the almost mute Violet, and the hilarious use of a portrait photo of Colin during a pivotal moment - and takes his place alongside Sean Durkin, Antonio Campos and Craig Zobel in exploring the dark side of contemporary America in an original and thought provoking manner.

Eric Hillis