What would you do for money? How low would you go, if the price was right? That is the core premise of the deft indie flick Cheap Thrills, where the events all but beg the audience to consider what they would do in the same situation.
Craig (Pat Healy) is a loving husband and new Dad in financial strife. Battling with news that his young family will be evicted if he cannot find $4500 in back rent, he also gets sacked from his job. Seeking solace in a local bar, he first runs into Vince (Ethan Embry), an old friend from school. Then the pair meet an odd wealthy couple (David Koechner and Healy’s co-star from Innkeepers, Sara Paxton) who are throwing cash around like water.
For entertainment, the couple begin betting on everything and anything. These quickly escalate to dares and the cash-desperate Craig and Vince are more than happy to ride the gravy train. But as the rewards for the dares go up, so do the risks…
Cheap Thrills plays this simple structure superbly. The mystery of the next challenge – not to mention exactly what is going on – keeping ratcheting the tension up. Along the way, the relationship between Craig and Vince shifts around between friends to allies to competitors. While it may seem clear where the movie is heading, there are plenty of curve balls along the way.
Director E.L. Katz gets great performances out of all four of his leads. Koechner plays the obnoxious braggart part with ease as he has in the past in flicks like Thank You For Smoking and Paul, but also manages to inject an edge of danger and unpredictability. Every time he laughs to try and put everyone at ease, the insincerity is palpably malevolent.
Paxton plays her part aloof, bored, but with an enigmatic air. Is all of this being done for her benefit? She gives the sense of a deep current of darkness without having to overtly get all femme fatale on it.
But the heart of the movie is in Healy and Embry. Healy is fantastic as the everyman wildly out of his depth, torn, fractured and prone to lashing out. Embry manages to inject pathos into what could have been the comic relief loser character in lesser hands. It is their shifting relationship that is the backbone of the drama and is what elevates the story beyond its high-concept set-up.
There is a wide vein of black comedy through the film that also serves to keep it from getting too grim – although it certainly does get grim – as the challenges before the duo slide ever more into depravity. While this faintly cartoonish tone avoids the movie becoming too nihilistic, it is also somewhat distancing, keeping proceedings from being truly emotionally affecting.
A lean, wicked little thriller, Cheap Thrills is the kind of vicious outsider that independent cinema can produce and deserves to be championed. A black-hearted gem of a film.
Unfortunately, despite the fact the film has a rumoured budget of a mere $100,000, there is no ‘making of’ or ‘behind the scenes’ or even interviews or commentaries to talk about how the dollars were stretched so well. Just a bunch of trailers. Oh, well.
Director: E.L. Katz | Country: USA | Year: 2013 | Distributor: Madman| Running Time: 84 Minutes | Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 | Region: 4/PAL | Discs: 1