“Cheap Thrills” is a mean, vicious black comedy with recognizable human traits as its major driving factor. Some of the uncomfortable behaviors presented in the film are so cringe-inducing that we cannot help but roll our eyes with more horror and more incredulity, but then we are also reminded that we will probably be no better than those desperate guys in the movie if we are put into their increasingly insane circumstance instead.
When he starts another frustrating day of his daily life in the morning, Craig (Pat Healy) looks all right as an average family guy on the surface, but he and his family have recently been going through a difficult economic situation. He once wanted to be a successful writer, but now he is a merely expendable employee in a local garage, and he is even not paid enough to support his family. His wallet becomes almost empty after his wife asks him for $20, and then we see an eviction notice on the front door of his small home.
To make the matters worse, Craig gets suddenly fired on this day, and he later goes to a local bar while feeling like hitting another bottom of his hopeless life, but then he comes across his old school friend Vince (Ethan Embry) at the bar. They are glad to see each other again after a long time, but that does not brighten up their mood much because Vince turns out to be as desperate as Craig. As a high school dropout who recently got out of the jail, Vince is at the bottom of his shabby life with no future, and it seems all he and his friend can do at present is being mired together in self-pity mixed with alcohol.
And then Vince and Craig meet Colin (David Koechner) and his young wife Violet (Sara Paxton), who are also spending some time like other customers at the bar. Colin, who is clearly a very rich guy, is ready to get any kind of fun and excitement for him and his wife, and this brash, jolly guy does not even mind using cocaine right in front of others. The employee at the bar is certainly not pleased by this, but he sees no problem at all because, well, he is a customer ready to pay for anything.
While Craig and Vince come to have a more fun drinking night after joining Colin and Violet, things become a bit more interesting as Colin suggests Craig and Vince a series of small bets. All they have to do is to take whatever challenge suggested by Colin, and Colin promises that the winner will be instantly paid by him. Though it is merely drinking a shot of tequila at the beginning, the circumstance gradually becomes more serious and disturbing as Vince and Craig continue to put themselves into more challenges with higher risk – and more money, of course.
The screenplay by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirllo pushes its premise with no mercy as Craig and Vince push themselves down to another low level at every challenge thrown upon them. As they descend into more pain, disgust, and humiliation through Colin and his wife, the movie strikes us with a number of very twisted moments, and a hard punch in the face looks like a minor humiliation compared to what they have to go through during some of these scenes.
While more frightened by the horror emerging from them, we also see more of the dark absurdity inside Colin’s cruel manipulation on Craig and Vince – and how they let themselves be manipulated. They can just stop and leave the spot while not looking back, but they cannot possibly resist the money being dangled in front of them, and then they find themselves more driven by their resulting combativeness over one-upmanship. They are not going to step back just because of how far they have gone, and they eventually come to throw away many things including self-respect and decency as they go down further and further into darkness.
Observing this madness on the screen, I was reminded of Craig Zobel’s “Compliance” (2012), a small but chilling drama film about a dark side of human nature not so far from what is shown in “Cheap Thrills”. Like the ordinary characters of “Compliance” are manipulated to commit horrible things by a perverse prank call with the false sense of authority, Craig and Vince cross the lines step by step as more tempted by Colin’s money, and they eventually arrive at the point where they really should think about what they have become now – if they have any common sense left inside them.
As a comedy thriller film driven by characters, the movie depends on its small cast, and the director E.L. Kats has talented actors who give convincing performances under his tight direction. As the average hero of the story, Pat Healy, who incidentally appeared in “Compliance” as an anonymous man behind that sick prank call, is believable in his character’s gradual fall into amorality and indecency (the movie feels sort of karmic considering his nasty performance in “Compliance”, by the way), and Ethan Embry is also good as a halfwit loser fueled by his own frustration and desperation. David Koechner, a comic actor mainly known for his supporting role in the Anchorman movies, is terrific in his jovial but ultimately chilling performance which feels more devious as we get to know more about his character’s evil side, and Sara Paxton is subtly unnerving as an aloof woman who may be as depraved as her husband.
While it is not comfortable to watch, “Cheap Thrills” is skillfully made while supported by good performances, and I like how its story ruthlessly pushes the logic in the character’s circumstance to the inevitable conclusion. To be frank with you, as watching its final scene, I could not help but think of Noah Cross’ memorable line in “Chinatown” (1974): “You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of ANYTHING.”