Cheap Thrills is a kick in the teeth, and I mean that in a good way. It’s a dark and cynical, drunk and drugged-out game of dares, with a wicked sense of humor. Winner of the Midnighters Audience Award at SXSW in 2013, E.L. Katz’s directorial debut is the kind of movie that gets a strong reaction from it’s audience. It’s a good one to see in a packed theater with a bunch of friends.
Pat Healy plays Craig, a family man that is struggling financially and facing eviction from his home. Things come to a head when he gets fired from his crappy, low-paying job. Too embarrassed to face his wife, he hits the bar and runs into Vince, an old friend played by Ethan Embry. They end up having drinks with an extravagant stranger (David Koechner) and his mysterious wife (Sara Paxton), and fall into a seemingly harmless game of dares.
Koechner is a delight to watch as Colin, the charismatic puppet master, pulling the strings and entertaining his wife on her birthday. “Whichever of you fellas does this shot first get’s 50 bucks” is the first of his many proposals, each with increasing risks/rewards.
His character recalls Peter Lorre in the classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, Man from the South. Lorre played a wealthy man that gets his rocks off by offering Steve McQueen the chance to win a fancy car at the risk of losing one of his fingers. It was remade years later with John Huston in the starring role. Man from the South was based on a short story written by Roald Dahl and was also the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s segment in Four Rooms. Cheap Thrills feels like a modern day descendant of the story, but bloodier and more twisted.
Vince is game for Colin’s challenges. Craig is hesitant at first, but as the drinks kick in, so does the realization that this is his chance to get paid. Courtesies are left behind, the friendship is tested, and things get tense. How low will a needy man go to provide for his family? At what cost will he cross his moral boundaries? Cheap Thrills doesn’t let up and it ends strong. On one level it works as an entertaining genre film, but it is also a decent character study. You could even say that it is a parable about people with great wealth using their money and power to manipulate desperate people; a statement on social class.
The acting makes it work. Koechner’s character is his most complex role to date, and he shows a depth I didn’t know he was capable of. Ethan Embry is almost unrecognizable and he has a strong screen presence. Healy is terrific in his descent, and he makes you feel his character’s pain. These three performances anchor the film. Sara Paxton is solid as well, but her role is more limited.
Cheap Thrills is not for the faint of heart, but it is fun, and it’s a must-see if you have a dark sense of humor.
I rate this film 3.5 out of 5 Nerdskulls.
It is now playing at Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas and is also available on demand.
More info here.
Essential Viewing: Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Man from the South (1960 and 1985 versions), American Psycho, Love Me If You Dare, Trading Places, Very Bad Things
Check out the red band trailer (nsfw) below:
Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Man from the South (1960):
Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Man from the South (1985):
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