Fantastic Fest 2013: E.L. Katz's Mean But Awesome 'Cheap Thrills'
by Jeremy Kirk
September 22, 2013
Like a mean bastard, Cheap Thrills gut-punches its way before your eyes and into your head. E.L. Katz's "What would you do" scenario makes for loads of after-viewing conversation, but above and beyond that, the film is a dynamite charge of fun. Thrilling, as the title would suggest, edgy and hilarious all at the same time, Cheap Thrills is like that distant relative who knows exactly how to make you burst out into laughter, but usually only after the wincing. Phenomenal performances push the drama into extremely genuine territory causing everything to meld together perfectly as one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences this year.
At the center of the film's twisty and turning narrative is Craig (Pat Healy). He's down on his luck, he's just received a final eviction notice on the apartment where he lives with his wife and infant child, and the job he had at the mechanic shop was just downsized. Craig needs a drink, and at the bar, he first bumps into an old friend, Vince (Ethan Embry). The pair of them could use a bit of financial good luck, as Vince makes his living collecting debts, sometimes violently.
That financial good luck comes in the form of Colin and Violet (David Koechner and Sara Paxton). It's Violet's birthday, and her husband is dropping hundred dollar bills as if that money tree they have in the back yard isn't going to run out. It isn't long before Colin throws a little test Craig and Vince's way, one worth $50. But that's not the first test, and as the challenges get more mischievous and, ultimately, more dangerous, the price goes up and up. What begins as a fun night at the bar with some friends old and new eventually slips down a darker road, but that doesn't mean you can't laugh.
That's the beauty of Cheap Thrills. It's dark. It's dangerous. Some of the turns it takes—and some of the challenges the two friends are given by Colin—moves the film into very unsettling waters. But it never loses its sense of humor. The action/reaction beauty of it all keeps you flinching from shock and then immediately has you rolling with laughter. It helps that that darkness and the eventual violence that comes from this "night out for cash prizes" never gets ugly. It's mean and it's shocking, but there's a difference. You get the impression that Katz either loves or admires his characters here, and even he seems reluctant to cause any of them any real harm.
Keeping this train effortlessly on the rails of hilarity are Katz's stellar cast. Healy and Embry bring their own fingerprints to each of the characters on the "have not" side of the money table. With each, progressive challenge they're given comes a distinct reaction from each actor. Embry is solid and serious—probably as serious as he's ever been, but he damn well pulls it off—and Healy is uptight and insecure, a man who doesn't want to loosen up. He just wants to go home to his family, and the emotional punch that side of the drama builds up is every bit as palpable as the hilarity that comes from the man's reactions. It's out of context, but Healy's line, "It's not a chicken, it's a dog," may be the most hilarious delivery of a line all year.
On the flipside, Koechner and Paxton are equally superb, the former coming off like a nitroglycerine tank of energy. Paxton is much more subdued, but even this performance comes across as flawless. It's great seeing her and Healy—co-stars of Ti West's The Innkeepers—back on the screen together, this time around in a much different capacity. But just as the dynamic between Healy and Embry cuts deep into the drama, the subtle—probably the only subtle thing about Cheap Thrills—relationship between Koechner and Paxton's man-and-wife couldn't be more menacing. The one time you see affection between them, a simple hand-holding, it's almost jarring, particularly given the violent nature of what's going on before them.
That shouldn't keep you from having an incredible time enjoying Cheap Thrills. All of its left-field jerks in story keep you guessing, and Katz never takes the easy way out of a predicament. But as dark or twisted as the film gets, it never forgets to make the audience laugh. It's a subversive laughter, to be sure, and Cheap Thrills' ultimate twist is as morally challenging as it is shocking. Fortunately, you'll never have to answer the questions of ethics Cheap Thrills raises, but you'll do just that over the course of the film. That it's able to instantly have you in stitches and that it's a 90-minute blast of thrilling entertainment is the film's best accomplishment.
Jeremy's Fantastic Fest Rating: 9 out of 10
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