Have you ever wondered just exactly what you’d be prepared to do in exchange for $100? How about $1000? Or $10,000? In his compulsively watchable debut, Cheap Thrills, director E.L Katz pushes this speculative game to the limit, submerging the film’s characters and its audience into ever-more squalid depths of humiliation, nastiness, and eventual horror. Uncomfortable to sit through, and yet impossible to turn away from, Katz’s stomach-churningly addictive film is an assured first feature, confirming the director’s place as a talent to watch out for in the future.
Pat Healy plays down-on-his-luck everyman Craig. Behind on his rent, facing eviction, and with a wife and baby to support, Craig is plunged into despair after unexpectedly losing his job. He heads to a local bar to drown his sorrows, where he encounters old school friend Vince (Ethan Embry). Also in the bar, conspicuously out of place amongst the blue collar clientele, is rich businessman Colin (Anchorman’s David Koechener) and his much younger trophy wife, Violet (Sara Paxton) – blonde, beautiful, and bored. In a bid to amuse his wife, Colin pits Craig and Vince against each other in a series of dares, offering cash prizes as an incentive. At first the dares are relatively harmless, but as the night draws on, the stakes get increasingly higher, and the challenges more and more disturbing.
Like fellow horror-director Ti West, Katz has the gift of creating cinema that belies its micro-budget status. With its focus firmly on character and story Cheap Thrills feels as smart, slick and well-crafted as many more “expensive” productions: a simple tale, told remarkably well. Healy and Embry’s down-to-earth performances manage to keep things just the right side of believable, and Healy in particular brings a real sense of poignancy to his role as a struggling new father. Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo’s script is filled with dark humor and clever twists, but the story never loses sight of the economic hardship and human desperation that drive its main characters, and the film is all the more potent for this.
Of course, one of the most interesting aspects of Cheap Thrills is the way in which its ingeniously simplistic set-up forces the audience to question themselves. While watching the characters debase themselves, taking on more and more extreme tasks, it’s impossible not to think “Would I do that? Would I go that far?” The flamboyant, jovial showmanship of Koechener’s character Colin, and the near-catatonic detachment of Paxton’s Violet are also particularly chilling. Sitting in the audience, it’s difficult not to feel a level of complicity in the on-screen humiliation. We’re inadvertently forced into the role of Violet, watching as the film’s characters eagerly debase themselves for our amusement: it’s impossible not to be reminded of some of the crueler reality TV shows and viral videos.
While Katz’s film is consistently gripping, its mix of realistic human emotion, pitch-black humor and some outright disgusting moments might prove a little disconcerting for some viewers. On the whole, however, Cheap Thrills is well worth checking out. An addictively tense, psychologically believable creation, it offers both the “cheap” thrills of its title, and some meatier, genuinely unsettling food for thought. With its focus on class-conflict and the gritty reality of poverty, the film acts as a wry, knowing parable for our recession-hit times – a chilling reminder of just how far some people will go for money.
Movie Score: 4/5