“Cheap Thrills” is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, which doubtless will be the strongest selling point for this worst-case scenario about steadily escalating dares and degradations. Playing like the mutant offspring of Harold Pinter and Quentin Tarantino, yet fueled by its own distinctive strain of darkly comic misanthropy, helmer E.L. Katz’s debut feature was voted audience fave among midnight pics at SXSW, indicating its potential appeal with extreme-taste auds. Fanboy press and word-of-mouth buzz could possibly attract a few mainstream moviegoers, but it’s more likely that this Drafthouse Films release will remain an acquired taste for an appreciative cult.
The gonzo script by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo pivots on a fateful intersection of desperation and exploitation. Newly unemployed, deeply in debt, and anxious to provide for his wife (Amanda Fuller) and their baby, Craig (Pat Healy) wanders into a sleazy bar for some mood elevation. His spirits are lifted, but only slightly, when he runs into a high school buddy, Vince (Ethan Embry), an ex-con currently employed as a collection agent who never takes no for an answer.
Soon afterwards, the reunited friends are approached by an aggressively gregarious couple: Colin (David Koechner), a boisterous glad-hander in a porkpie hat, and Violet (Sara Paxton), his more subdued, conspicuously younger and distractingly sex wife.
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Colin, brandishing his purposeful conviviality like a blunt-force instrument, is all smiles and good cheer as he downs drinks, snorts cocaine and flaunts a suspiciously huge hunk of cash. It doesn’t take long before he’s offering Craig and Vince instant payoffs for minor competitions — like dart-playing — then upping the ante for naughty behavior, such as insulting a drunken barfly.
As the new acquaintances depart for other locales (a strip club, then the couple’s lavishly appointed home), Colin’s challenges become steadily more humiliating, while the remuneration increases exponentially. Early on, the seemingly harmless loud-mouth divines just how cash-strapped Vince and (especially) Craig really are. So he keeps raising the bar — and the payoffs — encouraging the buddies to turn on each other while abasing themselves. Nothing good comes of this.
Katz deftly sprinkles dark portents amid the early scenes, so that by the time “Cheap Thrills” settles into a long stretch inside the claustrophobic confines of Colin and Violet’s home, auds are primed to expect the unexpected. But even that won’t be enough to fully prepare some viewers for the outrageous twists and reversals of fortune that occur as the pic goes to extremes, and then further, while more than making good on the promise of its sardonic title.
The performances are perfectly attuned to the material, with Koechner dominating his every scene as a kind of demented ringmaster, and Healy adroitly demonstrating the potential for both humor and horror in a character with nothing left to lose.
The pic’s final image is so fitting, it’s capable of eliciting gasps of shock and awe from an audience — so effective that Drafthouse may be tempted to use it as advertising art. But they should resist the temptation: Like most of “Cheap Thrills,” it derives its impact largely from its brazen shock value.
Production values aptly give the pic a veneer that is simultaneously slick and seedy.
Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Midnighters), March 16, 2013. Running time: 85 MIN.
A Drafthouse Films release of a NAA presentation of a Snowfort Pictures production. Produced by Travis Stevens, Gabriel Cowan, John Suits. Executive producers, Curtis Raines, Gena Wilbur, Jonathan Schurgin.
Directed by E.L. Katz. Screenplay, Trent Haaga, David Chirchirillo. Camera (color), Sebastian Wintero Hansen, Andrew Wheeler; editor, Brody Gusar; music, Mads Heldtberg; production designer, Melisa Jusufi; art director, Jeremy White; costume designer, Kelsey Stengle; sound, Jesse “C-Nug” Brown; stunt coordinator, George P. Wilbur; assistant director, Dave Casper; casting, Danielle Aufiero, Amber Horn.
With: Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, Sara Paxton, David Koechner, Amanda Fuller.