Ever had a competitive game of charades descend into a knife fight? Cheap Thrills might be for you. First-time director E.L. Katz carves a spiralling tale that bleeds desperation and demented humour, while literally increasing the stakes at each step. Here’s the “American Dream” on a platter: collapsed, damaged, then shoved down a chute for a final humiliation.
Craig (Pat Healy) is a cash-strapped father and husband who loses his job and simultaneous receives an eviction notice. Alcohol proves to be one temporary solution for Craig, who plans an evening with Vince (Ethan Embry), an old pal from school. The kicker comes from a wealthy couple in the corner: loudmouth Colin (David Koechner) and his silent wife, Violet (Sara Paxton). When Colin purchases the most expensive bottle of tequila using a stack of $100 notes, this clearly isn’t your average drunkard (or an average night out).
Craig and Vince become subjected to a series of escalating dares that begin from slapping a stripper’s arse to defecating in a stranger’s house – and that’s still the early stages. This is all, according to a coked-up Colin, a “real life reality game show” to celebrate Violet’s birthday; she occasionally Instagrams procedures, occasionally breaking her stare to sultrily flirt with Craig. While the two contestants are healthily paid for the embarrassment and can leave at any point, there’s a clear manipulation at play: millionaires throwing scraps at the needy for entertainment. We’re the ones watching.
Set largely in the married couple’s pad, Craig and Vince are victims of greed – and, to an extent, financial necessities. The “what if?” scenarios spiral for comedic purposes; everyone’s hooked in by the thrills of an easy (and disgusting) payday. There’s an early image of a $100 note in a urinal – would you yank it out? That line of questioning is emphasised to a sickening level, designed to elicit groans of disgust and involuntary laughter.
There’s enough evidence that Katz has an eye for discretely heightening tension. The screenplay’s structure and the cast’s chemistry help, sure, but subtle touches add to the mania. Music particularly adds a striking chord; the house’s speaker system emulates Craig’s pounding headache, while Violet hilariously takes to the keyboard at opportune moments. Ultimately, Cheap Thrills comes across like early Roman Polanski with a more anarchic sense of humour. I dare you to see it.