The question of what you do and how far you would go for money is one that many movies have asked, Indecent Proposal and The Most Dangerous Game among them, but Cheap Thrills makes it wicked, fresh fun all over again. Director E.L. Katz’s pitch-black horror comedy hits pretty much all the right notes, and if there’s an air of inevitability about the proceedings, it never crosses over into predictability.
Pat Healy (Compliance) stars as Craig, a failed writer who loses his job as an auto mechanic just as his family is facing eviction. Stopping off at a bar, he meets an old high school friend named Vince (Ethan Embry), who now works as a debt collector. The two share a drink and commiserate with each other before being invited for more drinks with a strange yet apparently very wealthy couple named Colin (Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton, The Innkeepers), who are out celebrating Violet’s birthday.
Colin initiates a series of bar bets with the two men, challenging them to some fairly innocuous stunts and offering them cash in the process. But when a bet at a strip club goes wrong, ending with Craig being knocked out by a bouncer, the party moves to Colin and Violet’s lavish home. It is there that Vince spies Colin’s safe and ropes Craig into a plan to rob the couple. The plan goes south, Colin gets the upper hand and offers the two men the only way out: an escalating series of more disgusting, violent and dangerous bets that will ultimately turn them against each other.
Katz walks a fine line between humor and malevolence in his directing debut and handles it deftly, making sure that a laugh is never far away even if you’re cringing at the next method that Colin dreams up for Vince and Craig to debase themselves. And while it would be easy for a movie like this to descend into simple torture porn or gross-out comedy, it never does because we are invested in Healy’s poor schlub right from the start. His desperation and looming financial and housing crises ring all too true, and even as Craig begins to lose touch with his basic decency, you root for him because he’s trapped in an unwinnable situation.
Embry also brings some subtlety to the part of Vince, the kind of person from our past that we all bump into once in a while: overly chummy and too quick to relive “the good old days” while resentful of the people from those days who have moved on. Paxton has the least developed role (she barely says anything throughout the film) but it’s fun to see her go from nerdy hotel clerk in The Innkeepers to decadent sexpot here, at one point interacting with her Innkeepers co-star Healy in a much different manner than their ghost-hunting pals did in that film.
The real revelation, however, is Koechner. Fans of the buffoonish Champ Kind from the Anchorman films will get quite a jolt from seeing him in a much more sinister light. His initial joviality masks a much darker and cunning intelligence at work, manipulating the two men and slowly setting them up against each other even as he makes each task he sets before them sound somehow reasonable and manageable.
There is subtext in the film if you want to look for it – certainly the idea of the exceedingly wealthy using the working people for their own nefarious ends and turning them against their own interests is there but never expressed in a heavy-handed fashion. Even without that to ponder, Cheap Thrills is effective as pure pulp, with Katz keeping the story lean and clear while getting good use out of his relatively few sets and small cast. Cheap Thrills is actually the antithesis of its title – its plentiful shocks and potent moments of humor are all right on the money.