IN TODAY'S ECONOMY, I'VE HAD TO PUT EVEN MY CHEAPEST THRILLS ON LAYAWAY...
Craig (Pat Healy) is a down-on-his-luck everyman, with a wife and 15 month old baby, in need of a break. On the same day that he receives an eviction notice to the tune of $4,500, he also loses his job. While drowning his sorrows at a local bar, he runs into an old friend, Vince (Ethan Embry), who could also use a couple of bucks himself and a mysterious couple (David Koechner & Sara Paxton) who just so happen to have the money they need and more. When the bored couple begins offering large sums of money to the pair in exchange for performing various dares and competitions that start off small but grow increasingly intense and bizarre as the night goes on, friendships and moral boundaries are tested and lines are crossed that may not ever be able to uncross. Craig and Vince become performing monkeys for the bored couple's amusement.
To say any more about the plot itself would be doing a disservice to both the filmmakers and viewers. The intricacies of what are going to take place on this fateful night are best left to be discovered by the viewer. Director E.L. Katz and writers Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo have pulled off quite an interesting feat here. Much like Michael Haneke's Funny Games, they put the viewer in a position to question just how far they would go in the face of dire financial problems. Unlike Funny Games, however, he does so without pointing the finger in judgment at the audience. Instead, we're able to look at the plight of Craig and Vince with empathy and understanding. Sure, things get pretty ridiculous as the night progresses, but the lure of money is a strong one.
The clever script has quite a few twists and turns at its disposal (some you'll see coming, but most you will not), but each is handled beautifully. When reading a capsule review, you may have a hard time believing that the events depicted within can go to the extremes that they do in such a short period of time (all of the action takes place in one night), but I can assure you that the writers capably make the situation entirely believable. Many films that use this manner of progression (things getting worse and worse as bad decisions are made) find themselves tripping over their own scripts to find resolution, but that's not the case here. They also are able to work in quite a few laughs amongst all of the grim subject matter contained within. The movie is quite funny for being so horrific.
Director Katz uses the scenery well - the second two acts take place almost entirely in one setting (the rich couple's home). Interestingly, he and his DP also keep most of the camerawork close up on the actors which creates a two-fold effect. Firstly, it keeps the viewers in on all of the action and helps make sure we're not able to escape our own thoughts on the situation. Secondly, by never giving us a full view of the surroundings, it helps maintain the illusion of mystery of the married couple. The movie grows increasingly violent as it progresses and the inevitable gore effects that come with that are all handled rather well, while never relying on those effects to carry the film.
What DOES help to carry the film however, are the performances by the very capable cast. Almost entirely a four person show, each actor is able to both win and lose our support throughout the film, and turns in very powerful performance. As our main protagonist, Pat Healy has the biggest character arc and pulls it off splendidly. He begins the day as a man who just wants to spend five more minutes at home with his wife and baby before going to work, but quickly and believably spirals further and further down as the night progresses. It takes a lot to make us go on that journey with him, but there's no doubt that he pulls it off. He is matched blow for blow by a nearly unrecognizable Ethan Embry playing a character who has a penchant for violence but may be the most reasonable one of the bunch. His reactions to the craziness the occurs also provide some of the biggest laughs.
As the young trophy wife, Sara Paxton portrays a cold sensibility, while rarely looking up from her cell phone. It's a departure for her, but she absolutely nails the subtlety that the role requires. The real revelation in the cast, however, is funnyman David Koechner. Known primarily for his supporting comedic roles, he is certainly funny here, but there is a certain menace and sardonicism behind his joviality that we perhaps aren't used to seeing from him. It's an amazing performance that will surprise those of you who, understandably, associate him most with Champ Kind.
A low-budget, dark comedy/thriller that relies on the power of its clever script, assured direction, and excellent performances, Cheap Thrill may just be one of the best films of the year. It's a testament that sometimes all you need for an effective film is steady pacing with a natural progression combined with actors who are more than up to the task. It makes you think without being judgmental and gives you four characters who will at times win your care and at others, earn your disgust. Highly recommended.