“Let’s keep this going. What do you want me to do next?”
As the title suggests, director E.L. Katz delivers some cheap thrills in this extremely dark comedy which begins as a standard down on his luck tale of a family man trying to survive through the recession after losing his job and receiving an eviction notice. The first half of the film (my favorite part) slowly builds up the tension while gradually getting darker as we approach the final act. There is a saying in my country which translated goes something like this: “For money, the monkey dances,” and that is what first time screen writer David Chirchirillo is exploring in this black comedy: to what extremes is someone willing to go for monetary gain. Are our values worth negotiating with in exchange for money? This theme is richly explored in Cheap Thrills through two characters (played by Pat Healy and Ethan Embry) who meet a rich married couple (Sara Paxton and David Koechner) in a bar and begin playing an innocent dare game. The couple offer them money in exchange for them doing a series of dares involving drinking a shot of tequila, punching the security guard in the face, and so on. Of course we all know that this is going to escalate quickly into something much darker as they begin paying the consequences for their action, and it does. Cheap Thrills has all the right ingredients to become a cult favorite for some audiences, but it just didn’t work that well for me as things began to get darker.
What I appreciated the most about this film is that it plays out perfectly as sort of an allegory of our society’s obsession over reality TV shows in which we are offered an opportunity to get rich by simply competing against each other in a series of dares. It actually is spelled out during one scene where Fear Factor is mentioned and this is exactly what the film is trying to get at. As we are judging these characters for how inhumane the series of dares are turing into, it all of a sudden puts a mirror into our society’s obsession over reality TV shows similar to Fear Factor. I think that if the film would’ve come out some 7 years earlier it would’ve been more effective because those shows have become a bit outdated. It also shows how we are always competing with our friends to become more successful than the other, and the way we justify our actions even though we know our behavior was dubious. The film reminded me a lot of Saw where the rich couple take on the role of Jigsaw as they get a kick out of watching their victims compete for money (instead of their lives). The clever difference is that this time their victims voluntarily place themselves in this situation as victims of their circumstance and so the game begins. But then during the second act it slowly identifies more with darker and gory horror films such as Hostel which was where I began losing interest.
The performances in this film are solid. At first I found David Koechner to be over the top, but everything begins to make sense as you stick with the premise. His wife, played by Sara Paxton makes for an interesting character despite not doing much. Just the way she is gazing at everyone with her beautiful eyes, it becomes obvious that she isn’t someone you can fully trust. Ethan Embry and Pat Healy are convincing as the out of luck old school buddies who bump into each other at a bar. The film focuses on establishing their relationship first and then it slowly progresses into portraying each other’s flaws. There aren’t any likable characters in this film, but they all deliver strong and engaging performances nonetheless. If you like you films dark and nasty then Cheap Thrills might just be your thing, but it just wasn’t for me despite appreciating some of the things it was saying about our society.