Whether you're watching something serious or a film that simply has fun with its subject matter, don't assume that it can't have some worthwhile messages. There are a lot of unsuspecting motion pictures out there that are able to do more than simply entertain its audiences. Filmmakers have been twisting the horror and comedy genres in a variety of different directions, allowing us to explore what they could possibly offer. Director E.L. Katz and writers David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga are introducing something many genre fans have seen in the past with Cheap Thrills, but there's more to this film than what first meets the eye. I wouldn't necessarily classify this as a horror motion picture, but it certainly has some familiar elements from the genre. The best way to describe it is as a thriller with dark comedy. This isn't going to reinvent any part of the medium in any way, but it provides more than the cheap thrills that its title claims to have.
After waking up and going through the daily routines, Craig's (Pat Healy) day turns into an absolute disaster. He loses his low-wage job and comes home to a threat of eviction. If he isn't able to find a way to pay the bills, then his family will end up homeless. He decides to head to the bar for some time alone, when he runs into Vince (Ethan Embry). They haven't seen each other in years, as they start to chat and catch up on old times. They're approached by Colin (David Koechner) and his wife, Violet (Sara Paxton), who are a couple of filthy rich partiers. They begin daring the two friends to do juvenile things for money, but as they leave the bar, the dares become more intense. With both Craig and Vince needing the cash, they're willing to do almost anything in order to make their wallets a little bit thicker.
Cheap Thrills is the type of film where you learn about the lead character as the plot continues to progress rather than setting it up beforehand. There isn't very much character disposition that lingers on its own, as it constantly keeps the story moving forward. We continue to learn more about Craig and Vince's past, their dreams, and how they got into the situation that they're currently in. Everybody's flawed, and perhaps a little bit psychotic. While Vince is clearly more willing to do a lot of the dares, Craig is extremely hesitant throughout the night. However, his constant motivation is fueled with the need to make enough money to support his family. As the running time continues, the relationship between Craig and Vince becomes extremely tense, as they're pinned against each other. Their frustration with one another continues to increase, as various truths about their past rise to the surface. We don't learn nearly as much about Colin and Violet, but that wouldn't be entirely necessary. While we get the opportunity to becom acquainted with them, there's no reason to know too much about their past. Colin has quite a bit more personality than Violet, but they're mysterious enough to make for an interesting night for their two new friends.
That mysterious element mentioned will be absolutely absent for anybody who has seen any similar films, such as Would You Rather. The dares progress along with the plot, so you'll constantly see where the film is going. Perhaps some of the dares could have been a little bit more unpredictable, keeping us on our toes. Unfortunately, you'll never find yourself shocked with this one. This is where the dark humor comes in. Very little of it is actually expressed through the dialogue, as the majority of it comes across through the situations. There are some moments of irony and parallelism that will deliver on some decent chuckles. However, don't expect to find yourself laughing out loud very much. However, I'm betting that this must be a lot more fun with an audience. A lot of the entertainment in this category must come from the reactions of your fellow moviegoers, but if you plan on watching this at home, you might not be very impressed with these aspects of the film.
The filmmakers have a little bit more up their sleeve than the friendship between Craig and Vince. There's a bit of social commentary that works pretty well here. It's incredibly obvious and you don't have to search too deep for it, but it never comes across as being too heavy-handed. Even if you've only seen the trailer, then you'll know that this is a film largely about the relationship between the rich and the poor in our society. This rich couple has everything that they could possibly wish for, and these two everyday men are willing to do absolutely anything for enough cash to keep moving. They have finally found an opportunity to make some money, but what will it cost them? Cheap Thrills is also largely about how people in society enjoy watching others suffer and humiliate themselves on some level. Why else would reality television be doing so incredibly well? The social commentary is delivered tastefully, which ultimately brings us to the film's final message. This isn't only a study of Craig and Vince, but also of the film's audiences. In a way, we're getting cheap thrills and being entertained by them. This act of putting a mirror in front of the viewer is a smart move made by the filmmakers.
Even though we don't become too close with any of the characters, the performances allow us to connect to them on some level. Craig is clearly supposed to be the most relatable to the general moviegoer, as he seems to have his head on straight. Fortunately, Pat Healy delivers a convincing performance. Even when the dares become more dangerous, he ensures that the transitions don't pull audiences out of the experience. Ethan Embry is just as believable as Vince. When Healy and Embry bounce energy off one another, it truly feels as if they've known each other for many years. This is partly due to the direction by E.L. Katz. David Koechner delivers a lot of personality as Colin. The few amount of laughs that are found in the dialogue are provided by Koechner, and most of them are due to his delivery and not necessarily the dialogue itself. He plays this despicable, yet incredibly amusing character very well. Sara Paxton has never been the most expressive actress on the scene, so she fits this unchanging woman quite well. When you put this cast together, you have a fun motion picture that never takes itself too seriously.
After getting the chance to see it for myself, I'm not surprised that this took home the SXSW Audience Award. This must have been an absolute blast to watch with a large audience, and I'm sad to have missed that experience. While watching it alone or with a small group of viewers won't be the same, this is still a worthwhile motion picture. The various points of social commentary work quite well, and the characters flow naturally. It never feels as if it's trying too hard, which is a pretty big deal. The dares themselves are incredibly predictable, but that doesn't stop this from being an enjoyable ride. This is an impressive debut for director E.L. Katz that just might exceed your expectations. Cheap Thrills is a film that builds on itself, never takes itself too seriously, yet has a clear objective that it ultimately achieves. Recommended.
Cheap Thrills is available on VOD starting February 21, 2014 and will have a theatrical release on March 21, 2014.