Cheap Thrills review

E L Katz's debut feature Cheap Thrills has tinges of brilliance, and gives Anchorman's David Koechner a very different role...

What would you do if someone waved a bunch of cash in your face, and offered it you in exchange for doing progressively more degrading things? It’s a simple question, that’s explored in considerable detail in the usually smart, sometimes plain cruel Cheap Thrills.

The film is centered around Craig, played by Pat Healy, who’s facing eviction from his home as he struggles to meet the rent. Life is further complicated by the fact that he and his wife – Audrey – have a young child. How can it get worse? Well, by turning up to work and finding out you’re losing your job.

In despair, and unsure how he’s going to break the news at home, Craig hits a local bar, and meets up with an old high school colleague, Vince (played by Ethan Embry). Yet it’s when the pair then encounter Colin and Violet – played by Sara Paxton and Anchorman‘s David Koechner – that the film slips up a gear or two.

For, we learn, it’s Violet’s birthday, and Colin is determined to give her a day to remember. As such, with low stakes, he begins offering Craig and Vince cash in exchange for challenges. Can one of them get the woman on the other side of the bar to slap them in the face, for instance? How about some cash for whoever finishes their drink first?

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Yet the stakes of the wagers, in both a financial and moral sense, get higher and higher, and E L Katz’s tight screenplay efficiently and effectively turns the screw. To call this a very dark comedy would be accurate.

It’s the grounding of the character of Craig that really helps make it all work. Fuelled by Healy’s committed performance, Craig is a believable everyman, for the most part making understandable decisions in increasingly difficult circumstances. Stand forward too the excellent David Koechner, who gives one of his very best performances here, mixing in an ability to push the buttons of the two lead characters, albeit with a sinister edge.

For long stretches of Cheap Thrills, it all works very well. In fact, it’s as if Indecent Proposal had been made by Neil LaBute, back when LaBute was making films such as Your Friends & Neighbors and In The Company Of Men. Here though, whilst the inherent cruelty in the concept is thoroughly explored, it builds to an ending that – save for the last moment – overplays its hand. It’s a conclusion that, without giving things away, loses a little interest in the theme that the film has thus far discussed so well, and instead opts to shock its audience. As a result, the sense of unease and tension, the nervous laughter and the black comedy that’s built to that point, ends up a little diluted.

It’s frustrating, because up until it takes a more overt genre turn, Cheap Thrills has plenty to say, and says it very well. Granted, there are rough edges as a consequence of the limited size of the production, and the odd logic gap, but the trade off there is the willingness to go to places that a larger film simply wouldn’t.

Cheap Thrills then achieves something of a paradox. It’s bold and brave in what it sets out to do, and then, at crunch time, it seems to lose its nerve just a little, save for the very final moment of the film. It’s most certainly worth seeking out, and E L Katz is a filmmaker very much worth following. For his debut feature is a sporadically brilliant, occasionally frustrating piece of cinema. And it’s also quite unlike anything else you’ll see on release this weekend.

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3 out of 5