The Good: Good acting, Interesting situation, Good story development, Smartly written, Well-directed.
The Bad: Heavy on theme/entirely misrepresented as a “comedy.”
The Basics: A night of easy money and chance meetings turns dark when two men rob a drug dealer in the indie satire Cheap Thrills, which was an unexpectedly great film!
There are very few films that can effectively balance dark social commentary and humor well. In fact, the only one that comes instantly to mind is God Bless America (reviewed here!). So, when Cheap Thrills was billed as a comedy, but starts dark and more depressing than humorous, it seemed like the movie was just misrepresented. With independent films like Cheap Thrills there is a willingness not shared by major studios to create films that do not fit easily into a category. Cheap Thrills is definitely one of those movies. When, twenty minutes into Cheap Thrills the movie has not generated a laugh, it was obvious that the indie film was going more for darkly satiric than laugh-out-loud funny.
There is something instantly disturbing about Cheap Thrills; very quickly the movie becomes a commentary on the oppressive nature of capitalism in the United States and that makes it difficult to watch at points. There is an instantly awkward quality to Cheap Thrills as the answers to the question “What would you do for a buck?” become increasingly more disturbing. The film’s characters are trapped in a situation not of their own making and the commentary on what a good person will do for money, goaded by bad people, is troubling, but has a measure of realism to it that is impossible to not be unsettled by.
Waking up before his alarm clock, Craig discovers an eviction notice on his front door the same day he is fired from his job working as a mechanic. Frustrated, Craig goes to a dive bar where he runs into Vince (who he has not seen in five years). Vince is an enforcer who collects money and Craig opens up to him about his money and life troubles. As fortune would have it, visiting the bathroom of the bar, Craig recovers a $50 bill being used by a guy doing cocaine. Leaving the bathroom, Craig is introduced to the man, Colin, who is spending the night with his wife, Violet, going from the dive bar to a strip club. Colin throws around money – making stupid bets like giving $200 to the guy who drinks a shot first or slaps a stripper’s butt. When Colin and Violet take Craig and Vince back to their house, Vince sees a safe full of money and goads Craig into helping him rob the couple. But Colin and Violet are not at all helpless and they turn the tables on the two men and reveal their truth: they have a safe full of money ($250,000) that they intended to give to the two men.
What follows is a series of escalating dares where Craig and Vince agree to take money from Colin in exchange for doing challenges, like making a drink, holding their breath, shitting in a neighbor’s house, and ultimately having sex with Violet to make the $4500 Craig needs to stave off eviction. When Craig walks out after cheating on his wife, Vince is left in the house to face more troubling dares. Colin challenges Vince to cut off his own pinky finger for $25,000 . . . but when Craig returns, the two get into a battle of wills that turns gory and disturbing.
Cheap Thrills would be the worst type of entertainment if it were not for the reality in which we all live in the United States. Cheap Thrills is not torture porn; it’s a social commentary that develops and exposes our society for what it is, albeit through hyperbole. Craig and Vince lowballing one another to be able to accept the challenge of cutting off a finger is disturbing, but an accurate commentary on the competitive nature of our capitalistic society. Craig is a good man, but he turns on Vince and his wife, justifying it at every turn in order to “provide” for his family. Cheap Thrills is all about how good people will do terrible things for money.
Hyperbole is the name of the game for Cheap Thrills. Colin represents bad big business by providing the “opportunities” for Craig and Vince. As Colin watches and comes up with increasingly troubling dares, he watches with indifference and glee at how the two men become his puppets. The money is a ridiculous incentive for the men and it turns into an unfortunately cheap source of validation for the men.
Violet clearly represents society in Cheap Thrills. Filming with her cameraphone, Violet chronicles her “birthday” and becomes the motivation for Colin as business. Just as ratings drive business, Colin justifies pitting Craig and Vince against one another with the excuse that it is Violet’s birthday and it will keep her happy. Like the schadenfreude-fueled masses that watch “reality television” for the melodrama and betrayals, Violet studies Vince and Craig, eagerly watching the two do horrible things to one another. As terrible as the night becomes, Violet never flinches, never looks away, and seems excited by the way Craig rises to each occasion.
Unlike movies like Apocalypto (reviewed here!) or The Hunger Games (reviewed here!) where the viewer becomes part of the societal degradation that the film is trying to make a statement against, Cheap Thrills is biting and not at all entertaining (though it is constantly engaging). In other words, there is no point in Cheap Thrills where Craig is anything but beaten down and depressing to watch; the film is all societal commentary without trying to be anything but stark, realistic, and introspective. We are never actually rooting for Craig or Vince and the viewer does not take any pleasure in watching either succeed in their for-cash endeavors.
The acting in Cheap Thrills is wonderful. Pat Healy plays Craig as a wonderful everyman; Sara Paxton’s Violet is cold and creepy without ever being unwatchable. Paxton and her costar David Koechner (who plays the role of Colin without any of his trademark goofiness) have great on-screen chemistry and play off one another well as a convincing, if somewhat vacuous couple. Ethan Embry’s Vince is instantly shady and Embry plays the morally-shifting nature of the character well. The moments Vince implores Craig to let him have a piece of the action are heartwrenchingly real in a way that a lesser actor would fail to sell.
For those who are unfamiliar with my reviews, a perfect film is a tough sell for me and there are almost no films that I look at and wonder why I did not “give” them a 10/10 (Love Actually, reviewed here, is the only film I think I may have underrated in that regard given how often I come back to it with delight). In my rating system, a film has to earn each point, as opposed to starting with the idea that the film will be great and having points taken off. I’ve spent the past three hours trying to come up with reasons to mark Cheap Thrills down: it’s thematically heavy-handed (it’s supposed to be; it plays as focused, not overbearing), the directing is unimpressive (E.L. Katz tells the story with exactly as much scope as it needs in order to tell the stark story), there are no standout lines (there are no cheap catchphrases and that makes the story all the more real), and on and on . . . Cheap Thrills is an understated perfect film that I have already found myself talking about in glowing terms. There’s a reason for that; it’s a great film and those are words I don’t often say and praise I do not just give away.
For other perfect films, please check out my reviews of:
The Spitfire Grill
For other movie reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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