Nerdlocker Movie Review – Cheap Thrills

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Let me start with this. Cheap Thrills is an amalgamation of some fantastically dark elements from my favorite movies and television shows including Fight Club, Breaking Bad and Surviving the Game with a touch of twisted humor a la Death to Smoochy.

We start with an incredibly boring and common theme of a family man saddled with debt trying to care for his family. He obviously loves them and wants to provide the best. We are witness to Craig, played by Pat Healy (Magnolia, Ghost World), receiving several reminders of humility. Starting with barely being able to give his wife gas money, to an eviction notice on his apartment door to the final nail being laid off at work, Craig’s in trouble. Clearly things are in a downward spiral. But how low can one man go? That’s exactly the premise of this film.

Enter Ethan Embry’s character Vince. I first remember seeing Ethan in a long forgotten, but criminally underrated movie with Ed O’Neil called Dutch. But I remember him most from his turn at Mark, member of the band Marc, in Empire Records. Sadly I don’t think Embry has gotten his just due with the great number of films he’s been in, from Can’t Hardly Wait to Sweet Home Alabama to Vacancy and Eagle Eye. He shows up in so many films, but he is the rare actor who melts into his role. Case in point, I didn’t even recognize him as he joins his long lost pal Craig on screen.

So two friends who haven’t seen each other in five years run into each other in a bar. What could possible go wrong? Married couple, Violet and Colin answer that question almost immediately. Sara Paxton (The Innkeepers, The Last House on the Left) portrays the quietly beautiful Violet. She adds the exact amount of emotion at the perfect times, but never really goes over the top. Plus she’s beautiful and sexy, which comes into play several times. David Koechner (Anchorman) plays Colin. My all time favorite role played by Koechner is Stumpy in Out Cold. He’s fricking hilarious in a from out in left field way. In this role though, he epitomizes the ringleader of a triple dog dare competition that just won’t quit. He easily bounces back and forth between overly excited crazy as the events play themselves out, to mastermind manipulator getting what he wants done. I was truly impressed with his serious turn as an actor.


As old friends become acquainted with the married couple, we get introduced to the “game.” The standing bet in the bar is that if an old man at the bar stares at the female server’s tits, Colin wins. If he stares at her butt, Violet wins. Innocent wager. But clearly it’s the gateway drug that leads to the downward spiral to follow. The scenario is quickly established, it’s Violets birthday and her present is to have dares performed on her behalf for varying dollar amounts. They start relatively simple with who can get a girl to slap them in the face first to first person to slap a stripper’s ass wins to even punching a bouncer in the face. Not exactly death defying, but certainly things that go against social morays. And all for what? So far dollar amounts in the hundreds.

As we delve deeper into this lunacy, we are occasionally brought back to reality with phone calls from Craig’s wife. This definitely serves as a reminder that Craig has responsibilities, thus forcing him to want more from these dares, as well as a moral compass of sorts. He is after all still a family man with a young wife and baby at home. Exactly how far will he go to provide for his family.

Let’s just say this is where shit gets real. The downward spiral continues with no apparent bottom. But the dares go from individually appointed ones to beating each other out to claim the prize. Friends quickly turn to enemies over who will poop in the neighbors house first. Violence erupts over who can hold their breath the longest. It gets so bad that the pair fight over and reverse auction self mutilation for the lowest bidder. Clearly desperation has a friend in these two.

Throughout this we are also introduced to an incredible irony in the relationship of Craig and Vince. As the events turn more and more dark, Craig chastizes Vince for the mistakes he’s made in his life, claiming all those bad decisions have led him to where he is now. What Craig doesn’t seem to understand is that Vince is exactly in the same place as himself, despite all the prior decisions. In fact, Craig appears to be in a worse situation, despite his good upbringing by two caring parents and a college education. Obviously the two old friends are quickly turning against each other in order to win the most money from their benefactors.

It was about midway through that I felt like we needed to expect a big twist. This is probably more an indicator that a lot of us have been trained by gradually more and more crappy M. Night Shamalayan movies, but the film definitely had a feel that something more is going on here.

Luckily the twist that I foresaw, which does happen, was not the one I foreshadowed. In fact it’s more of a footnote or ode to the classic comedy Trading Places. In the fact the real twist, which isn’t so much a twist but rather an examination of character, occurs just as it should, but with the subtlety necessary to achieve it.

How do you end a fantastic examination of human deterioration to our animal instincts? By returning Craig to his family, just as we found him in the beginning. Only now his money problems have been solved and his morality doesn’t seem to exist.

I truly enjoyed the emotional roller-coaster of Cheap Thrills. I found myself thoroughly engaged during the entire film wondering when exactly these characters would reach their lowest point. I’d like to think in the end, they did. Only because I fear exactly how low a person could go. But who exactly is the worst person? The ones who commits the atrocities or the ones manipulating them?

I give Cheap Thrills, 4 out of 5 Nerdskulls

Check out the Cheap Thrills website for show times and Video on Demand options –

If you hate to read, check out my video review here:

Check out the trailer below:

Cheap Thrills [Green Band Trailer] In Theaters March 21 from Drafthouse Films on Vimeo.

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I'm a true child of the 80s from a small town near Cleveland, Ohio. My all time favorite topics are Star Wars, slasher films and Cleveland sports (despite the misery it causes). I narrowly avoided law school, instead choosing film school. I have been accused of being a walking IMDB, but I take it as a compliment!