What’s your price?
Who among us hasn’t asked this after a few too many in the pub? This is the question Cheap Thrills (2013) wants you to ask yourself. We live in a world where anyone willing to dance with a dog for Simon Cowell, film themselves lip-synching to Disney hits, or perform obscene acts with an empty wine bottle in front of a closed-circuit camera can have a chance at their own fifteen minutes. But what if the prize wasn’t the chance at anything? What if you could skip the middleman and go straight to the cold, hard cash? What if there really were no strings attached?
Cheap Thrills is the directorial debut of horror/music journalist E.L. Katz, and what a chest-burst onto the scene it is. Katz has an impressive back-catalogue of writing and production credits, and his first foray into feature-length directing is a gleefully twisted tale of skewed morality and misanthropy.
Protagonist Craig (Pat Healy) isn’t that different from you or me: an unremarkable everyman working a low-paid job in order to support his wife and infant son while harbouring dreams of a successful writing career. After being served an eviction notice and losing his job on the same day, Craig decides to drown his sorrows in the local bar. There, he encounters old friend Vince (Ethan Embry), and the two of them soon find themselves downing tequila with an absurdly rich and charismatic stranger (Anchorman’s David Koechner) and his beautiful but aloof wife (Sara Paxton). What begins as a few lightly risqué dares for pocket change turns into a Faustian dilemma with buckets of blood and betrayal as the couple up the ante, determined to see just how far they can stretch Craig and Vince’s moral integrity with their increasingly thicker bundles of money.
Down-on-his-luck Craig is immensely likeable and easy to sympathise with thanks to Healy’s dry wit and commendable comic timing, and his submissive tendencies are wonderfully juxtaposed with Embry’s imperious energy. The two bounce off each other beautifully and create a bro-ship well worth rooting for. Koechner gives a scene-stealing performance as the equally likeable but subversive Colin, and we never learn enough about Paxton’s Violet for her to be anything other than a mysterious instigator to the madness – a turn which is both engaging and gloriously sinister.
If you were to take your favourite things about Four Rooms, Severance and Funny Games, Cheap Thrills is what you would end up with. The script is sassy and clever, managing to pre-empt the audience’s questions and highlight the absurdity of the protagonists’ situation, while the blood and gore is just the right side of sickening. While not laugh-out-loud, clutch-your-sides hilarious, it delivers a smart, slick scrutiny of morality and social boundaries. If at times it feels like the action could have been turned up a notch, any doubts will be waylaid by the final scene. This is not a gross-out film that delves into the realms of schlock in order to shock its audience. Cheap Thrills is far cleverer than that.
Whether you choose to see Cheap Thrills as a smart satire, examining how our morality is kept in check by nothing more than money, or simply enjoy the ride while laughing grotesquely at the sheer abhorrence of it all, you won’t be disappointed.