Directed by: E.L. Katz
Written by: David Chirchirillo, Trent Haaga
Starring: Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, Sara Paxton, David Koechner,
Craig was a writer at one time. Enjoyed some accolades, had a bright future in front of him. Then family, and the practicalities of life got the better of him. As Cheap Thrills begins we learn that he has seven days to pay $4500 to his landlord else he and his new baby will be evicted. That very day he loses his job, and instead of going straight home Craig heads to a bar to have a drink and escape, when he bumps in to an old acquaintance whom he has not seen in five years, Vince.
Vince works collections for a loan shark, but, like all of us, wishes he did more. They reminisce until a couple insists the two drink with them. The couple, Colin and Violet, are throwing money around and filling the glasses like it don’t mean a thing to them. Then Colin, makes an innocuous bet that Colin can’t get one of the bar patrons to slap him. After which, the tasks for money become harder, and more dark.
To the untrained eye Cheap Thrills looks to be nothing more than a film that saw the Tarantino section of Four rooms and wanted to amp it up. A film that on the surface is about one upping the gross-out factor until the inevitable sticky end, but what it deeply and truly is about is what are the lengths a man would go through to save his family. I am reminded of the story that has been going around as long as I have been alive, doubtless longer, about the theory that Mother’s can attain super-human strength when faced with a do-or-die situation in saving their own child; lifting a car off themselves, or just enough to get to their baby out. Cheap Thrills is showing us a situation where one man, Craig, learns the depths of his will to protect the future of his family.
The film is also about resentment. Craig and Vince knew each other back before Craig decided he wanted a better life. It seems Craig came from money, and Vince was not as well off. They knew each other through Skateboarding and would team up to do unnamed shenanigans- we assume the kinds of things all teenagers get up when they are faced with the exaggerated boredom of adolescence. It would seem that Craig made a hasty retreat leaving his friend in the dust and the hurt and resentment Vince feels towards Craig comes out, as well as Craig’s loathing of Vince as a physical representation of what he is trying so hard to forget.
The story is: this couple, Colin & Violet (David Koechner & Sara Paxton) are out on the town to celebrate Violet’s birthday, and they act as if the innocent bets for tasks are as fluid as the alcohol, just funning around, but we know that there is something more sinister going on here. These two have planned this evening in some way and their friendly games has a darker undertone of a lack of regard for humanity. They are playing with Peopletoys. They want to see how far someone with less than them will go to have the money they are providing- and there is a lot of it, $250,000, sitting in an unlocked safe like it was just old toys on the lawn.
Pat Healy as Craig is great. A natural talent. A portrayal of a man, embarrassed at his accomplishments, scared of the downward spiral his future is leaning towards, coupled with a fitful need to prove the world wrong. That underneath his bespectacled face lies a darkness that has been building up for years as he felt he has let himself and his family down. A man on the brink of a meltdown who is working ever vigilant to be the pillar that is holding up his life and his family. His passive aggressive tendencies towards Vince, who only wants to be his friend, regardless of the bad blood between them is a delight to witness. Pat, a solid centre in the midst of a bit of nasty business.
The movie falls square in the realm of Straw Dogs, and certainly parts of The Last House on The Left. Witnessing common folk resort to extraordinary methods to survive. So easily we all sit in our warm houses, with our Starbucks coffees, and our big screen TVs, watching the conflict in cities around the world and taking nary a moment to contemplate whether we would have the resolve to survive when the chips were down.
Yet, Cheap Thrills does not hit the bullseye dead centre. It wavers. Perhaps lost in the enjoyment of the ever more disgusting feats Craig and Vince must overcome for the money they so desperately need. Perhaps it lingers on the audacious a little too long, neglecting to stick to Craig’s story. And it is Craig’s story, yet the filmmakers will let him disappear at times simply to play with the audiences want to see him fulfill his mission.
For instance, later in the film, after Craig has made more than enough money to stave off the creditors he leaves. Arguably this gives us an interesting moment with Violet, too distracted by his disappearance to tie up her robe, as she desperately searches the streets for him in her bra and panties. Of course, Craig comes back, as we all knew he would, and just tells us he needs the money to get ahead of the creditors- to have a nest-egg to fall back on, but where was his journey of thought process? Show don’t tell. Show don’t tell.
The rest of the cast work wonderful, as well. Sara Paxton’s Violet, so quiet and mysterious- never truly revealing her cards, you are never too sure whether she is bored or amazing at poker. Koechner shines as Violet’s husband and general ringmaster, Colin. His energy is contagious and his apparent joie de vivre keep him likeable enough that you will never be too sure if he is truly as mad as he seems. Then there is Vince, Ethan Embry, perhaps channeling a bit of Scott Speedman, but not enough to find offence. Ethan, has Vince hovering on the edge for most of the film, you sense his indignation towards, not only his old friend but perhaps to the world for dealing him such bad cards in life. His need to win this money and rise above his station is ever present in his actions.
A roller-coaster of a film that delivers on most of the statements it’s trying to make about humanity probably won’t call for consistent repeated viewings. A likeable cast that work within a potentially off-putting story. A deft mystery that tries hard to never reveal more than the audience needs to piece the overall picture together. Oh… and funny. Funny as hell.