Cheap Thrills (2013)

Cheap Thrills review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

“You know, Craig, I once broke a guy’s arm for $80 – while his daughter watched,” says ex-con debt collector Vince (Ethan Embry). “You think you’re capable of doing something like that?”

Craig (Pat Healy) is an educated family man down on his luck. An aspiring author whose work was once published in a magazine (“an existential dread so palpable it might require stitches” is the significant quote we glimpse in a copy proudly framed on his wall), he is now sexually frustrated at home, has an eviction notice pinned to his door, and has just been downsized from the mechanic’s job on which he depends to keep his wife (Amanda Fuller) and infant son barely afloat. That night, drinking away his sorrows in a seedy bar, he runs into his old schoolfriend Vince, and questions him, whether fearfully or opportunistically, about his special line of work.

Soon the cash-strapped drinking buddies are invited by convivial stranger Colin (David Koechner) to help celebrate the birthday of his bored-looking wife Violet (Sara Paxton, reunited with Healy from 2011’s The Innkeepers). This odd couple is made of money, and looking for vicarious entertainments to bring meaning to their life of empty ease. As the party moves on from the bar to a strip club, and then to Violet’s well-furnished pad (with a “killer view”), Craig and Vince find themselves beguiled by the flash of cash and more or less willingly pitted against each other in an escalating series of challenges for high-stakes prizes, with only their self-worth and integrity (physical as well as ethical) on the line.

In this confronting directorial debut from E.L.Katz (who previously scripted Home Sick, Pop Skull and What Fun We Were Having for Adam Wingard), the spirit of Dr Faustus is alive and well and living in LA, as the haves seduce the have-nots into selling their souls (and battering their bodies) for a truly life-changing price. Betrayal is the key theme here, as Craig discovers just how disposable his every cherished value can be if the price is right (or just on the table).

Cheap Thrills is a morality play for these polarised, post-crunch times in which we have all become – and allowed ourselves to become – the pliable playthings of the superrich. At the same time it sweetens the pill of its hard lessons with witty dialogue (by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga), credible performances, and precisely the kind of transgressive ‘guilty pleasures’ promised by its title. Never before has the expression “You’re the winner” come tinged with quite so much heavy irony, as this class-conscious black comedy reveals the American dream to be both a gladiatorial bumfight and a dog’s dinner.

© Anton Bitel