“Cheap Thrills,” E. L. Katz’s bloody, queasily comic, often jaw-droppingly brutal debut feature, has a title that is both perfectly descriptive and cruelly ironic. For audiences looking for extreme genre pleasures, this more than fits the bill. However, for the characters in the film, these thrills are anything but cheap. The simple yet brutally effective scenario, concocted by screenwriters Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo, and largely taking place within the confines of a single house, is spiked with a dose of social commentary. Economic desperation and the class war between the 1% and the 99% provide the real-world underpinnings of the increasingly outrageous actions that occur.
The story begins with Craig (Pat Healy), who has long given up on his ambitions to be a professional writer, and now toils at menial labor in an auto shop. Or at least he did until soon after we meet him, when he is suddenly laid off from this job, with practically no warning. This puts Craig’s already precarious financial situation, as he struggles to provide for his wife (Amanda Fuller) and their baby, into red-alert crisis mode. Now unemployed and with no apparent prospects for more work, his family faces eviction if he doesn’t come up with some cash, and fast.
Craig goes into a local bar to drown his sorrows and try to come up with a way out of this mess, where he runs into Vince (Ethan Embry), an old high school buddy, whose path has taken a very different one from Craig’s. Vince is now an ex-con who works as a debt collector for the mob. Although in less dire financial circumstances then Craig, Vince is nevertheless also dissatisfied with his low station in life.
The two talk and reminisce, and Craig is about to go home, when the two are approached by Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton), a very rich couple who enjoy slumming with the plebes at dive bars such as this one. The loud and gregarious Colin and the much more silent and watchful Violet strike up a conversation with Craig and Vince, and very soon numerous drinks and lines of coke are flowing as the night increasingly gets wilder.
Colin and Violet love to throw their considerable wealth around, and Colin soon cottons to Craig’s and Vince’s desperate financial situations, and decides to make things a little more interesting. Colin begins daring them to do various tasks for which he will pay them if they successfully complete them, often pitting the two friends in competition with each other. This starts off innocuously enough, with games of darts and shot drink races. Colin then starts upping the ante, increasing the outrageousness of the tasks, beginning with daring them to harass a female bar patron, with a prize to the one who first gets his face slapped.
The action soon migrates to a strip club, and then finally to Colin and Violet’s lavish home, where the tasks they are asked to do become ever more dangerous and degrading, with the prize money put before them increasing as well. The greatest change we see is in Colin’s character; driven by the desire first to get his family out of debt, then to provide a safety net to protect them from future penury, he tests, then exceeds the limits of what he is willing to put himself through and the moral boundaries he has lived his life by. Colin and Violet prove to be the cruel puppetmasters of their working-class prey, amusing themselves by observing what these two are willing to do for the monetary bait thrown at their feet.
“Cheap Thrills” is most definitely not for the weak at heart; even a jaded viewer as myself was in open-mouthed awe at some of what I saw here. However, Katz displays a sure hand at controlling the tone of the piece, setting up our sympathies for these characters but gradually overturning them, making us question our perceptions of these people as their true natures are revealed. Katz elicits very good performances from his actors; Koechner, for example, known mostly for his comic roles, conveys just the right mix of friendliness and menace that his role requires.
But in terms of performance, this is Pat Healy’s show. Healy has already turned in impressive work in such films as “Great World of Sound” and “Compliance,” but in “Cheap Thrills” he outdoes both of those performances, compellingly taking us through his character’s journey from seemingly upstanding, law-abiding citizen, to the actual, much more morally-compromised person underneath.
“Cheap Thrills” concludes with an absolute stunner of a final image, one that perfectly encapsulates its themes and has a number of commentators comparing it to the films of Michael Haneke, specifically “Funny Games.” And though Cheap Thrills is by no means as powerful as Haneke’s films, it similarly, and admirably, shares the same impulse of not letting the viewer off with easy answers or easy comfort.
“Cheap Thrills” screens at the Fantasia International Film Festival on August 4. The film has won the festival’s New Flesh Award for Best First Feature. For more information, visit the Fantasia fest website.