Cheap Thrills is an efficient but hollow bleak comic thriller built out of what passes for social commentary these days. That is to say it has topicality and point of view that isn’t subtext so much as text and blasts its intent with all the finesse of blunt force trauma and without having much to say. The plot concerns two old buddies unexpectedly catching up after running into each other at a bar. One (Pat Healy) is a failed writer who just lost his low-paying mechanic job and is due to be evicted at the end of the week. The other (Ethan Embry) never finished high school and is now a dirt-poor debt collector for the local criminal element. They haven’t seen each other since high school, followed different paths, and yet find their financial problems mean they still have a lot in common. The middle class sure is eroding, the movie says, pointing out the grim reality so many of us are facing.
It gets worse. A rich man (David Koechner) and his much-younger wife (Sara Paxton) call the men over, offering to buy them a round of drinks. The guys appreciatively accept. Then the man leers at them, points out a clearly troubled woman sitting across the bar, and offers $50 to the guy who can get her to slap him. Hey, money is money. They accept the challenge and get the bills. The rich man leans closer, waves his cash around, and offers them a chance to play out their own private “reality game show.” They just have to play along, do his dares, and collect $250,000 at the end of the night. These guys are in such a painful squeeze, cash-strapped, teetering on the precipice of crushing poverty. They barely have time to process their doubts before they’re on their way to the wealthy couple’s mansion in the hills, ready to take part in the evening’s challenge and reap the rewards. It almost goes without saying that the dares start relatively simple – punch a guy, take a swig of liquor – and escalate in depravity until they are pooping on a stranger’s carpets and worse.
At every step of the way the poor men wriggle and squirm, torn up about each new perverse twist while the rich couple looks on, practically licking their lips as they pull out stacks of greenbacks. They know how little the money means to them, how life changing it could be to their victims. All four characters are complicit in continuing the game. The rich people set the rules. The others just have to play by them to have any hope of getting by. The pain on Pat Healy’s face is unmistakable, as is the money-lust dripping off of Embry’s. The characters are pawns in the plot’s schematic thematic construction, but the actors manage to make even the most strained plot developments halfway believable. Koechner rubs his hands, snorts his coke, and grins manically while Paxton gazes on when she’s not fussing with her phone. She can barely be bothered to plug into the human misery being enacted for her entertainment.
That’s part of what makes the movie so effective. It asks us to sit back and watch the corrosive brand of free market jockeying played out before us, watching rich people squeezing every last drop of torment out of people who desperately need the money offered, doing so for no other reason than because they can. Money is a powerful motivating force here as it is in reality. The movie is certainly an ugly glimpse of our recessionary ids, a story of rich getting richer as they make others suffer, make all the rest of us work harder and harder for less and less. By the time the two poor guys at the center of the movie’s cheap thrills are manipulated to turn on each other, undercutting to get the most out of this bad situation, negotiating down then amount of money it’d take for one of them to, say, chop off a pinkie, it’s clear the one-crazy-night lark is going to bottom out somewhere truly depraved. And, sure enough, it’ll get there.
Director E.L. Katz shoots the film as a claustrophobic chamber piece, a small cast rattling about in a limited number of rooms. The images are dark and dim, the actors looming large in the frame, circling each other in blocking that reinforces the tightening maze of disgust and eager greed the night becomes. But the screenplay by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga never complicates the scenario, letting it fall down its obvious and unpleasant trajectory without much difficulty. It’s one thing to point out the economic microcosm represented in the central conceit – bad rich guys exploit the rest of us who will do anything to get a piece of the pie – but the movie doesn’t do anything constructive with that. It sits harshly, cynically, corrosively on the surface, eating through characterization and plot alike, leaving a thin, sour aftertaste. The movie has all of the jolts and splatters meant to provoke nervous laughter and surprised gasping guffaws out of an audience ready to be amazed the filmmakers went there. But it’s all weakly provoking with nothing more to say beyond the obvious.