Cheap Thrills (2013)

Cheap Thrills first published by Film4

Synopsis: E.L. Katz’s directorial debut is a long dark (and darkly comic) night of the soul, in which morality is repeatedly outpunched by economic imperatives.

Review: “You will never forget this night, or who you were with,” says Colin (David Koechner) to his guest Craig (Pat Healy). Writer manqué and down-on-his-luck family man Craig has in the space of one day received an eviction notice and been downsized from his blue-collar job. Drowning his sorrows in a seedy bar, he runs into old schoolfriend Vince (Ethan Embry), now a violent debt collector living precariously. Soon they are invited to join the affluent Colin and his rather disengaged wife Violet (Sara Paxton) for a long dark night of bets, games and challenges that will pit Craig and Vince against one another in pursuit of big cash prizes. Yet for all the life-changing stakes, this is a contest strictly for losers.

So it is that E.L. Katz’s directorial debut Cheap Thrills serves up exactly what it says on the tin, while uncomfortably aligning our own voyeuristic seeking of vicarious kicks with that of a couple of jaded sadists. Katz’s satirical target is a society all too familiar as our own, where the haves are starkly divided from the have-nots, with the former calling all the shots and regarding the latter as mere disposable playthings.

A sickly comic four-hander (minus the odd finger), Cheap Thrills offers a steady escalation of wrongness as our two low-rent antiheroes learn just how far they are willing to go in return for financial reward from a couple of Satanic tempters. Literalising expressions like ‘dog eat dog’ and ‘hand to mouth’, the film is dictated by cold, hard economics, updating the Faust myth to the age of the bum-fight.

It is very funny, but the underlying message – about the humiliating (and all too willing) submission of the 99% to the wildest exploitative whims of the super-rich – remains deadly serious. The result is an unforgettable night in the cinema.

In a nutshell: It’s Faust meets bum-fights in this sick black comedy for our economically polarized age.

Anton Bitel