CHEAP THRILLS – Fantastic Fest Review
E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills is Trading Places for the exploitation crowd. Only instead of the Duke Brothers wagering on the social inversion of two unknowing chumps, it’s a bet between bored, over-privileged spouses asking: which contestant will sink to the lowest level of depravity first? Katz has crafted a film that feels the closest to pure ’70s exploitation since that decade ended, with big ideas about class and status buried beneath layers of shock. It’s sick and depraved and, at times, flat out hilarious — the young director never missing a chance to slip in a slyly subversive element.
At the heart of the picture is a reignited relationship between two old friends. Craig (Pat Healy), is a struggling writer who’s just been laid off from his menial job as a mechanic. He’s got a wife and baby at home who need to be provided for, and he doesn’t know how the hell he’s going to do that. Vince (Ethan Embry), is a hulking beast of a man, working collections in the shady back alleys of L.A. Unafraid to break a man’s arm (while his daughter watches) to settle a debt for his employer, his friendly back-patting demeanor is offset by the black ski cap that covers his skull and the bushy beard that obscures his face. It’s over a dive bar drink that these two are reunited, as Craig tells Vince his tale of woe and his friend, who hasn’t seen him in years, is eager to pull out whatever money he can to help. But Craig tells him it’s not enough, as he owes nearly five thousand dollars and is going to be out on the street in a matter of days if he can’t pay.
When Healy and Embry share the scene (which they do for almost the entire film), you can feel a palpable chemistry between them; a genuine portrayal of a pair of once good friends who enjoyed a few nasty times together before going down two very different paths. Healy has a kind of sad sack Charlie Brown by way of Bill Burr feel about him, moping through life as if he’s waiting for an answer to fall out of the sky. And Embry turns Vince into a wounded dog, eager to please but willing to bite at the first sign of provocation. Watching these two bounce off each other in the early moments of Cheap Thrills is wonderful, and I could’ve taken an entire buddy comedy starring the two.
Enter Colin and Violet (Dave Koechner and Sara Paxton). A seemingly mismatched couple on the surface, the two are out celebrating Violet’s birthday with a crazy night out on the town. Colin is smashed, flashing his money around with reckless abandon. If he wants to do coke off the table, he’ll just tip the waitress a couple hundred bucks so she looks the other way. That’s the way he rolls. And, at first, the crass yet harmless dares he offers the two guys seem like a bit of misogynistic playtime (“I’ll pay $100 to whoever smacks that stripper’s ass”), with Violet sitting stoned in the corner. But even at the entry level of this “competition”, a new spirit is born between Craig and Vince. Craig has to take the bait, because what other option does he have? However, as the dares escalate and become more dangerous, Vince just doesn’t want to win — he wants to watch Craig suffer as he takes the money he desperately needs out of his clutching hands.
This is what Cheap Thrills is about. Yes, these two men are asked to debase and mutilate themselves in the service of winning cash, but at the heart of this blackly comic tale is an almost Romero-esque metaphor for the New American Dream. Not only does your friend and neighbor want the same things you do, he wants you to not have it. This is a movie about how those at the top of our current economic food chain not only take pleasure in the pain of those less fortunate then they are, but also about how those at the bottom will quite literally murder each other to get to the top of that mountain. As soon as cheese is up for grabs, these two men become rats, ready to eat each other for the biggest chunk, and it’s downright horrifying and difficult to watch.
In many ways, Cheap Thrills could almost work as a thematic companion piece to Compliance, the SXSW hit from last year that also featured Healy. Only, instead of playing the controller, here Healy is the controlled. The authority of the police is replaced by the influence of wealth, and watching the actor play the antithesis to last year’s Officer Daniels is fascinating. Craig is the flip side to the thematic coin, and double-featuring the two films once Cheap Thrills hits VOD/blu ray next year (courtesy of Drafthouse Films) is going to be a real treat.
As much as I love Pat Healy and Ethan Embry, kudos also have to be given to Dave Koechner and Sara Paxton. In Koechner’s case, there isn’t a trace of Champ Kind to be found. Instead, the usually comedic actor brings an intense physical presence to his role (which actually leads to one of the movie’s funnier left-field moments). He’s intimidating and nasty, a far cry from the bumbling goofballs he’s usually known for. And Sara Paxton is no longer the cute as a button good girl from Ti West’s The Innkeepers (which also featured Healy in a starring role, making this sort of a reunion for the two). Violet is slinky and sexy, coldly photographing each humiliation without barely cracking any sort of noticable reaction. It’s brilliant, subtle work, and further evidence that she is one hell of an exciting actress to watch.
I can honestly say I’d be shocked if Cheap Thrills doesn’t end up in my Top 10 of the Year for 2013. E.L. Katz has crafted a brutal little exploitation gem; one that doesn’t rely on gore to get its unexpectedly profound message across. Cheap Thrills is a snapshot of the eradication of the American middle class at the hands of a gleeful 1%; an essential and terrifying cinematic essay about the growing divide between the haves and have nots, and how we are all pawns in a game being played by those better off than we are.