Engrossing ‘Cheap Thrills’ Bets on Men’s Desperation

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CHICAGO – “Cheap Thrills” is a case study in human desperation and depravity. It’s a sick and twisted film, but it goes about it in a most absorbing albeit uncomfortable way. It’s one of those films that forces the viewer to place themselves in the protagonist’s unpredictable position, asking a question like, “what would you do for money?” Once you do it, what else are you willing to do for more and then, “how far is too far?” 

In his directorial debut, E.L. Katz, along with screenwriters David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga, want us to ask such questions and many more. Based on the levels of humiliation and pain witnessed on the screen, they also want us to squirm in frustrated and anger. It’s like a product of “The Twilight Zone” and “Creepshow” spilling into each other, that happens to deliver one of the most memorable endings of the year.  

Down-and-out Craig Daniels (Pat Healy) bumps into an old high school friend, Vince (Ethan Embry) in a local Los Angeles bar late one night. Vince enthusiastically states it’s been five years since they’ve seen each other, but Craig has other things on his mind. Earlier that evening, he found an eviction notice on the door of the apartment he shares with his wife, Audrey (Amanda Fuller) and their fifteen-month-old son. Then he was let go from his job changing oil at an auto shop after thinking he might get a raise. Clearly, Craig isn’t there to socialize and hearing Vince ask how his writing is going probably doesn’t make matters any better. 

Ethan Embry
Vince (Ethan Embry) in ‘Cheap Thrills’
Photo credit: Cinedigm

The two reunited friends then meet Violet (Sara Paxton) and Colin (David Koechner), a filthy rich couple out celebrating her birthday. Buying a three hundred dollar bottle of tequila is no big deal for the brazen and loud Colin, who invites Craig and Vince to party with him and his quiet wife. As the drinks are downed, Colin offers up monetary bets to the two desperate men just for kicks. Daring them to get a woman at the bar to slap them for $100 or seeing which one of them can drink the fastest for $50. The party transfers to a strip club and then eventually lands in the couple’s fancy home in the hills, with the bets becoming higher and increasingly bizarre.

Then things get intense as Colin reveals that the entire evening was planned. He and his wife were out looking for a couple of sad sacks they could entice with a series of challenges for an absorbent amount of cash. Craig and Vince are weirded out at first, but the irresistible lure of easy money pulls them into what is, at first, a couple of funny dares (who can hold their breath the longest?) that soon leads to challenging acts of dehumanization and pain like defecating inside a neighbor’s house or losing a pinky. 

As the seemingly vacant Violet records it all on her smartphone, hostility between Craig and Vince increases finding them becoming more and more competitive as resentment surfaces. Although they can supposedly leave whenever they want, the two men engage in the next degrading act out of one-upmanship and greed. 

It may be a ludicrous and morally depraved premise, but Katz nevertheless pulls us in. We become engrossed, wondering what could possibly happen next - and to what end? 

We can relate to Craig’s financial woes and even see why, Vince, working as a loan shark, would go so far and lose so much to gain tax-free money. Craig, terrifically played by Healy (who reunites with Paxton, his co-star from “The Innkeepers”), is a husband and father pressured by the sudden shock of job loss and potentially losing his home. The big question the complicit audience will ask is not whether or not they would do the same deplorable tasks, but whether or not Craig will be able to live with himself after all this. Katz keeps us involved, repulsed and enthralled by what passes for entertainment for this couple and also has us ask the same of ourselves.

The cast really makes a difference in a film like this and Katz is lucky to have actors who display quite a range here. Working off of Katz’s developing slow-burn build, the cast wonderfully releases certain character nuances as the fast-paced picture increases its aura of discomfort. It’s good to see a bearded Embry (looking like Ben Foster’s double),  is a long ways from “Can’t Hardly Wait”, who brings a palpable intensity as Vince. He could’ve just played a loser we could easily disregard, but Embry allows us a hint of sympathy for this pathetic character. Koechner, known mostly for comedy, revels in this ominous role. Portraying what starts off as an amiable partier who turns into a magnetic monster, Koechner turns out to be the most surprising player here. 

David Koechner
Colin (David Koechner) in ‘Cheap Thrills’
Photo credit: Cinedigm

Healy grounds “Cheap Thrills” though, and it’s not an easy task. Craig is a man who is slowly losing his humanity with each challenge he accepts. It’s quite a sudden arc for an actor to convey in such a short amount of time, making it all the more exhausting for viewers. With this lead role and small parts in current major studio releases such as “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Draft Day”, attentive audiences will come to appreciate Healy’s acting chops even more. 

I can’t say that I laughed that much while watching “Cheap Thrills”, but I can see why the thriller is considered a black comedy. It’s obvious what is funny to the characters, yet it’s also very unsettling and quite disturbing. Watching their downward spiral at the cost of a few laughs and large amounts of cash is more tragic than it is funny. Yet what transpires during this late-night detour into darkness is as engrossing as it is disturbing.

“Cheap Thrills” continues its limited release in Chicago on April 11th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, Amanda Fuller, Sara Paxton and David Koechner. Written by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo. Directed by E. L. Katz. Not Rated

© 2014 David J. Fowlie, HollywoodChicago.com

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