Are human beings wired to enjoy the suffering of other human beings? Does everything truly have a price? How far would you be willing to go to ensure your family's peace and prosperity? Does morality work on a sliding scale?
These are the questions I pondered while trying to come up with an opening paragraph for my review of Cheap Thrills, a low-budget but high-energy thriller that's nasty fun on the surface, but rather a smart little morality play on the whole. Sort of like a wise-ass American rendition of a Michael Haneke film, Cheap Thrills offers us vicarious thrills by having characters get their own vicarious thrills at the expense of another character's well-being. In other words, two of the characters in this film are compelled to do some truly unpleasant things to each other, but we're allowed to enjoy their safely fictional miseries because the filmmakers have a dark and crafty story to tell, as well as a few interesting points to make.
The story is straight and to-the-point: family man Craig (Pat Healy) has just lost his job, and is about a month away from losing his house. While drowning his sorrows in a harmless beer, Craig reunites with an old pal named Vince (Ethan Embry) and also befriends a strange married couple who seem to love throwing their cash around. After several drinks and a few odd but uneventful "wagers," the foursome decides to head back to Colin (David Koechner) and Violet's (Sara Paxton) swanky house for some, well, some cheap thrills.
Right about here is where you'd probably mistake the movie for a bizarre sex movie, but to its credit Cheap Thrills has something a bit more cerebral in mind. Turns out that Colin and Violet are very wealthy, very bored, and very interested in making two blue-collar nobodies struggle for a decent chunk of change. At first the games are pretty simple: "$300 to the one who finishes their drink first," is the challenge laid down to Craig and Vince, but things start to get decidedly more extreme as the night goes on. Suffice to say that Cheap Thrills has a few novel twists stuck up its sleeve, and a few of them are quite memorably unpleasant.
The four actors are, quite simply, aces across the board. Koechner is both affable and insidious, and the result is the comedian's finest acting performance of his career. The lovely Ms. Paxton is frequently silent, entirely in command, and often kinda creepy, and Mr. Embry wipes away a lot of his younger roles with a dark, honest, and intense turn as Vince. Last but never least is the excellent character actor Pat Healy, last seen in Compliance, and more or less fascinating here as a plain Joe who may be in way over his head. Or not.
So while the leads and the salaciously intriguing premise are more than enough to keep Cheap Thrills afloat, high praise to writer / first-time director Evan Katz for striking an astute balance between a simply engaging dark thriller and a trenchant piece of social commentary. It's not often you come across an indie film that's both joyously mean-spirited and also kind of moral at the same time, but Cheap Thrills breezes by on a twisted idea, a fantastic cast, and a bunch of ethical quandaries that are both eerily uncomfortable and slyly fascinating at the same time.