This review was originally published on March 16, 2013…
It has long been an unfortunate part of the human condition to be entertained by the pain and/or embarrassment of others. Thanks to a mindless onslaught of reality television programming, this has never been more a prevalent trend than the present. E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills is an incredibly intelligent, albeit hyper-violent, condemnation of this phenomenon; all the while, Katz also ruminates upon the economic disparity in the United States and the financial desperation of the working class. So, yeah, Cheap Thrills is clearly the smartest hyper-violent film I have ever seen.
Craig (Pat Healy) is already struggling to cover his family’s living expenses when he gets laid off from an auto repair shop. Normally, losing a job might be a blessing for an aspiring writer, but Craig’s family is facing a seemingly unavoidable eviction as early as tomorrow. Craig certainly cannot afford to not work, so he stops by the local dive bar to devise a plan before heading home to his wife and baby. After one drink, Craig is ready to leave the bar; that is until an estranged friend, Vince (Ethan Embry), appears. It has been so long since they’ve seen each other, and Vince is buying the next round, so Craig figures what the hell. Soon, the two old friends find themselves sharing a table with a filthy rich man named Colin (David Koechner) and his young trophy wife, Violet (Sara Paxton).
It is Violet’s birthday and she wants to be entertained, or so Colin says. That is precisely why they are slumming it alongside the low-life clientele of this rough-and-tumble watering hole. Money means nothing to Colin and Violet, while it means everything to Craig and Vince. The funny games begin, as Colin begins to offer Craig and Vince varying sums of money in exchange for some low-brow entertainment. Once Colin has Craig and Vince sufficiently-lubricated and hooked on the concept of earning money for doing stupid things, he brings the guys back to his palatial abode in order to up the ante.
For Craig, the money that Colin offers him for the increasingly dangerous acts means saving his family from becoming homeless in the approaching hours; then it becomes about establishing a financial safety net, eventually snowballing into highly irrational greed. We know that Vince’s job as a bill collector is not a safe one, but he is at least more financially secure than Craig. Regardless, Vince cannot turn down the opportunity to “win” tens of thousands of dollars for one perverse task after another. Once their inherent competitive drive kicks in, all bets are off.
It is surprising just how effective Sara Paxton is as the (mostly) passive observer. Her silent emotionless gaze seems almost more menacing than Colin’s maniacal ringleader routine. In many ways, Violet represents an audience who is totally numb to the absurdly violent actions taking place in front of her. It is as if she has seen it all before, so nothing is shocking. Her only visible emotion is a strange sexual attraction to Craig, just as reality show audiences often become attracted to certain contestants.
Pat Healy nails his performance as Craig, providing us with someone who dives headfirst into a cesspool of moral ambiguity. We understand the pressure he is under to provide for his family, we can feel his mental and physical pain. For someone who has been held back from pursuing his dreams by the Capitalist machine, Craig learns to take ridiculous risks in order to make quick cash (the modus operandi of countless reality television programs) and he rapidly evolves into a greedy, selfish jerk. In other words, he turns into an evil Capitalist.