[Editor's Note: This review was initially published on September 23rd, 2013. But since the film is available on VOD starting today, February 21st, 2014, I wanted to give you the opportunity to read it in case you missed it during our Fantastic Fest coverage.]
Cheap Thrills takes an incredibly simple idea and executes it in an incredibly sophisticated way. The story of two old friends whose unexpected reunion gets interrupted by an unexpected offer from a bored rich couple, writer-director E.L. Katz manages to effortlessly balance punishing violence, rich characterizations, gallows humor, and even social commentary, all without compromising emotional accessibility or good old-fashioned storytelling. Bolstered by terrific performances and a truly visceral series of set pieces, Cheap Thrills is an auspicious directorial debut and easily one of the year’s best films.
Pat Healy (Compliance) plays Craig, a mechanic whose aspirations to be a writer have been deflated by the realities of bill-paying and fatherhood. Arriving at work one morning to discover that he’s been laid off, Craig wanders to a nearby bar to figure out how he’s going to support his family – and more immediately, score enough money to avoid eviction. While drowning his sorrows, he accidentally runs into his childhood friend Vince (Ethan Embry), but married couple Colin (Dave Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton) interrupt their reunion with an offer to help celebrate Violet’s birthday. But after Colin offers them $50 to intentionally get slapped by one of the bar’s female patrons, Craig and Vince soon find themselves in a competition to complete increasingly profitable – and dangerous – dares, forcing them to consider how much money makes it worth it for them to compromise their well-being, much less their dignity.
Tone is an incredibly difficult element of storytelling to maintain, especially if the filmmaker’s material is complex, unusual, or challenging. Cheap Thrills maintains not just a remarkably even tone, but exactly the right one, avoiding judgments of the characters or overdramatizing their choices as the film’s inhumanities escalate. If Craig’s motivations are clear and well-reasoned, Vince’s seem driven by personal jealousy and a greedy sense of competition, but Katz manages to provide enough information about both that the deck is never too heavily stacked in either character’s favor. Moreover, Katz explores the fundamentally twisted concept at the heart of the film – what would you do if someone paid you enough? – with a sort of bemused detachment that manages to be tense but not manipulative, bleak but not hopeless.
Healy has a rare sort of versatility, smoothly making the transition from the withering sarcasm of The Innkeepers’ Luke to the dispassionate manipulation of Compliance’s Officer Daniels to Craig’s sympathetic anxieties, preserving each character’s identity while protecting their common integrity. While there’s automatically something sympathetic about Craig’s predicament, he makes it easy to get behind the character as much because of his increasing boldness as his initial vulnerability. As Vince, meanwhile, Embry successfully razes the squeaky-clean image of his earlier career, communicating a gruff physicality and a fearsome conviction that belies a sense of inferiority he’s determined to conceal.
In playing Colin, Koechner channels his typically boisterous energy into a character with a frightening sort of detached curiosity – he’s more interested in the outcome of a scenario than the actual repercussions. Weirdly, the largeness of his other performances provides a great subtext for the understatedness of this one: Colin’s unpredictability not only keeps the characters but the audience on edge, as we wait to see what depraved scenario he proposes next. And finally as Violet, Paxton continues to demonstrate not just her maturing skill as a character actor, but her awareness of – and eagerness to venture beyond — the conventionality of most female roles. “Bored trophy wife” is where her role begins, not ends, and she contorts the character’s sentimentality into a twisted tool for manipulating Craig, even as it evidences a distant hint of sincerity.
Ultimately, Cheap Thrills is the kind of movie whose concept could have spun off into any number of self-contained directions – kidnapping thriller, black comedy, an exhibition of brutality – but Katz avoids easy genre (or subgenre) categorization by following through in a straightforward, unforgiving, but deeply humane way. It’s the kind of movie where all of the behavior falls squarely in the realm of believability, and yet its unpredictability gives the viewer the sense that anything could happen at any time. Thankfully, “anything” both does and doesn’t, which is why Cheap Thrills is such a triumph: unpredictable but utterly relatable, Katz elevates mundane desperation into unexpected fortitude, and turns a dehumanizing experience into, unexpectedly, a resounding portrait of hope.
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