The debut film from writer/director E.L. Katz is a black comedy that plays its cards just right, capitalizing on a low-budget premise with the help of some surprisingly sharp writing, fantastic performances from all those involved, and an assured hand guiding things behind the lens. Cheap Thrills is not a film that is content to be nailed down within a specific genre, shifting from hilarious to cringe-worthy to thrilling to just plain bleak, and always striving to push the envelope of audience expectation. There are numerous twists and turns that toy with the viewer before the surprising finale, which almost makes you wonder how you ever had so much fun watching this story unravel. Not for those with a weak stomach, Cheap Thrills is a modest success that is sure to make you laugh and gasp in equal measure, and carries a surprisingly poignant message about the thin line between need and greed.
Family man Craig (Pat Healy) loses his job the same day that he receives an eviction notice. Upon visiting a bar for a drink before he plans to break the news to his wife, Craig runs into an old high school acquaintance named Vince (Ethan Embry). They spend some time catching up until they are unexpectedly befriended by wealthy couple Colin and Violet (David Koechner and Sara Paxton), who are out celebrating Violet’s birthday. Colin soon begins offering them cash prizes for completing tasks or dares, which only one of them can win at any given time. Despite starting out with simple and often humorous challenges, things take a dark turn once additional money is introduced, and the dares become more and more severe. Before long, life-altering decisions are being made with each new sum of money, and Craig and Vince find themselves caught in a web of greed which could consume them both.
A great deal of this film’s success comes from its phenomenal cast, lead by the charismatic Pat Healy (The Innkeepers). Healy feels like an actor who is just waiting to break out in a big role, with a great sense of comedic timing and a likeable presence that is contrasted by Ethan Embry’s gruff and manic portrayal of Vince. Embry has certainly changed since headlining those teen films from the ’90s (Can’t Hardly Wait, Empire Records), and despite nearly overdoing it in a couple scenes with his crazy wide-eyed stares, he is put to great use here and even pulls out a surprisingly emotional turn in the end. I was also pleasantly surprised by David Koechner in this film, as he displays more depth than usual, and shows off a dark side that stands in contrast to the obnoxious comedy roles he so often plays.
As a first-time director, E.L Katz shows a lot of promise with this film. He’s done an excellent job with the pacing, and seems most comfortable working within the grey spaces that exist between the light and the dark, transitioning seamlessly from the hilarious to the horrifying and often revealing greater truth in the contrast. As the dire financial needs of Craig and Vince slowly give way to a selfish desire to “get rich quick” despite the cost to their integrity, we see a dark side emerge in both of them that is born out of opportunity and circumstance, making us question whether there exists a part in all of us that would buckle under the weight of an easy answer to our life’s biggest problems. Not unlike the television series Breaking Bad, Cheap Thrills examines how far a man will go to provide for his family in a dire situation, and how easily that man can lose himself in the process, and become warped by his own twisted ideals. It’s about the corrupting power of one really really bad day; but more importantly, it’s a surprisingly fun time at the movies that is definitely worth 90 minutes of your life, as long as you can stomach it.
R A T I N G : 4 / 5 S T A R S