×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Cheap Thrills’

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.

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.

Cheap Thrills

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Cheap Thrills'

More Film

  • Atlantics

    Variety Names 10 Directors to Watch for 2020

    Before film critics start summing up the present year at the movies with a deluge of Top 10 lists, Variety gazes into the medium’s future by announcing its annual 10 Directors to Watch — a lineup of filmmaking talents who’ve stood out on the recent festival circuit, or whose movies will soon be hitting screens [...]

  • Napa Valley Film Festival Winners: 'Lucky

    'Lucky Grandma' Wins Napa Valley Film Festival Narrative Feature Prize

    “Lucky Grandma,” “The Remix: Hip Hop in Fashion” and “The Nomads” were among the winners of the Napa Valley Film Festival, which ran Nov. 13-17 in various towns in the valley. The winner of the narrative feature was “Lucky Grandma,” presented by ZD Wines, which won a $10,000 cash prize, courtesy of Meadowood Napa Valley. [...]

  • Brad Pitt stars in “Ad Astra”.

    'Ad Astra' to Blast Off in China in December

    The Brad Pitt-starring sci-fi blockbuster “Ad Astra” will land in Chinese theaters on December 6, more than two months after its U.S. debut. Directed, co-written and produced by James Gray (“The Lost City of Z,” “Two Lovers”), the thriller also stars Tommy Lee Jones, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga. Pitt plays an astronaut [...]

  • Fred Wolf to Direct 'Love 40'

    Film News Roundup: Fred Wolf to Direct Tennis Rom-Com 'Love 40'

    In today’s film news roundup, Fred Wolf is directing a romantic comedy in New York; Leah Remini, Chinoye Chukwu, Marielle Heller and Lulu Wang receive honors; and the topless bar documentary “Red Dog” finds a home. ‘LOVE 40’ Bluewater Lane Productions has brought on Fred Wolf to co-write and direct the romantic comedy “Love 40,” [...]

  • Doppelgänger Red (Lupita Nyong'o) and Adelaide

    Lupita Nyong'o Follows Hollywood's Tradition of Two Roles in One Film

    Peter Sellers played three roles in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 “Dr. Strangelove.” In December of that year, Variety reported that Columbia was mounting an Oscar campaign for lead actor, but was also considering three supporting-actor campaigns, for each of his characters. (They settled on one campaign, and Sellers’ nomination as lead actor was one of the [...]

  • 'Legion' TV show premiere

    Noah Hawley to Write and Direct Next 'Star Trek' Movie

    “Fargo” and “Legion” creator Noah Hawley has been tapped to write and direct the next installment of the “Star Trek” franchise, sources tell Variety. Though plot details are being kept under wraps, sources tell Variety the next “Star Trek” is expected to see Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban and Zoe Saldana returning to man [...]

  • Paramount Movie Theater Paramount Consent Decree

    Why Eliminating the Paramount Antitrust Decrees Won't Shake Up the Movie Business

    The Paramount Decrees have been the rules of the road for Hollywood since the golden age of movies, but the Justice Department’s decision to do away with directives that were hammered out decades before the rise of cable or streaming has barely registered within the entertainment industry. That’s because they are widely seen as anachronisms [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content