April 03, 2013

CHEAP THRILLS Is Equal Parts Horrifying And Hilarious

"I've got a meat thermometer."


That's what I found myself saying over and over again while sitting in the theater for Cheap Thrills.

Actually, "saying" isn't quite accurate.  More like "shouting."

I don't think I've ever seen a movie that is not only both incredibly disturbing and astoundingly funny, but it also has the unique ability to flip from one to the other and then back again all in a matter of seconds.  I'm definitely what you would call a vocal audience member, and I spent most of the film's running time either howling with laughter or screaming with disgust.  It's exhausting, but in the greatest way imaginable.

Craig (Pat Healy) is a one-time writer who's now supporting his wife and baby son by working in an auto shop.  Or rather, he was.  After waking up to find an eviction notice stuck his door, Craig is summarily fired and heads to his local dive bar to find solace in a bottle.  He soon runs into Vince (Ethan Embry), an old high school friend from the wrong side of the tracks who he hasn't seen in  five years.  Vince is now a low level enforcer with a flexible moral code, telling Craig that he once broke a man's arm in front of his daughter over a mere $80.  Just when Craig is about to head home to break the bad news, they meet wealthy couple Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton) out celebrating her birthday.  Colin is throwing money around left and right, buying the two men plenty of drinks as well as offering them cash for winning stupid wagers.  As the night progresses, the rewards get higher as the bets grow more and more depraved, but the two friends are so desperate for a way out of their dead end lives that before long they'll do anything to win, including turn on each other.

Dark comedy doesn't even BEGIN to describe the utter insanity I witnessed.  To say this film is not for the squeamish is seriously understating it; the phrase "too far" simply isn't in this movie's vocabulary.  There's sex, violence, animal butchery and an appearance by almost every bodily fluid imaginable.  (It was no surprise to learn that director E.L. Katz used to work for Troma.)  Some of it's all in good fun but when tens of thousands of dollars are on the line, both Craig and Vince are pushed to some really twisted places by the increasingly amoral couple.  To say anything more would be doing you a massive disservice, as the shock of seeing "what happens next" is half the fun.  The teaser below is kind of great, whetting your appetite without giving away any of the gags.  If this thing sounds like your cup of tea (if you still have to ask, it's probably not) then just go see it.  I was lucky enough to catch only the second ever screening of the film, after it premiered at South By Southwest and was immediately picked up by Drafthouse Films, release date TBA.

There are really only five roles in the whole movie, including Craig's wife (Amanda Fuller) who has a few scenes bookending the film.  It's a risk, because if even one performance doesn't measure up then it can drag the whole thing down.  Fortunately everyone is simply great.  I pretty much entirely unfamiliar with Pat Healy but he absolutely blew me away as struggling family man Craig.  His slow descent into hell is both completely nuts and totally believable.  The danger with this kind of story is that if the audience ever starts asking why Craig hasn't just gone home yet, then the jig is immediately up.  Not only did I never get to that point, but I quickly found myself wondering just what I'd be willing to do for $25,000.  Before long you're rooting Craig on, wanting to see him succeed no matter how grotesque or self-destructive the task.

I've always been fond of Ethan Embry.  I know he had some personal troubles for a while, but I've met the guy before and he was really nice and unpretentious, something I've heard echoed by those who've worked with him the last few years.  He's probably best remembered as the clean-cut young hopeless romantic from Can't Hardly Wait, but here Embry is almost unrecognizable as the bearded, balding bruiser Vince.  It's a tough line Embry has to walk, because while he and Craig are certainly rivals, he never plays Vince as the outright villain.  He's certainly not a nice guy, but he's got the kind of edgy magnetism that makes it clear both why Vince and Craig used to be friends and why they eventually drifted apart.  While at first he's ready to help his old friend out of a jam, he's willing to discard that friendship when the really big money comes into play.  Vince is eventually pushed to the breaking point and he has an astonishing moment at the end that is so perfectly staged I still can't get it out of my head.

Koechner and Paxton are sublime as Colin and Violet, a pair of gleeful sociopaths with money to burn.  The couple has literally everything they could ever want, so in order to celebrate Violet's birthday, Colin has promised a night of excitement at the expense of the two strangers.  While we're used to seeing Koechner play oafish buffoons, here he's a damn snake charmer.  Colin is filled with a sort of dark charisma, the kind of guy who can seemingly get you to do anything just by asking.  He understands the power of the almighty dollar and he wields it like a sledgehammer.  Violet, meanwhile, spends most of the night simply watching, silently snapping photos on her phone with a sense of idle detachment.  She's not bored, but she knows that the whole night is an effort to impress her and she wants to make everyone work for her approval.  While she might appear spoiled, in reality it's all a cold calculation, something made clear by their last, Trading Places-esque moment.  Colin and Violet are two peas in a psychotic pod, a perfect match made in hell.

Never has a movie been so aptly titled as Cheap Thrills.  Yes, there's a sharp commentary here on the insidious nature of capitalism run amok as well as the relationship between the 1% and the rest of us.  There's even a few pointed jabs at our reality TV obsessed culture, where people are willing to debase themselves for money and millions of others are happy to watch them do it.  The more this crap takes hold of our collective conscious, the more we cheapen our very humanity.  But, more importantly, the movie itself is entertaining as shit.  It's a wholly visceral experience, the sort of film that demands to be seen in a packed theater for maximum enjoyment.

 To call the movie "thrilling" would only scratch the surface.  It's a fucking triumph.

Title: Cheap Thrills
Director: E.L. Katz
Starring: Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, David Koechner, Sara Paxton, Amanda Fuller
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Brattle Theater, Boston Underground Film Festival

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