Watching Cheap Thrills and seeing the tears cascade down Pat Healy’s bloodied face, my thoughts turned to Winston Churchill. Churchill is at a dinner with a beautiful noblewoman and asks her if she would sleep with him for five million pounds. She’s aghast at the crudeness of the question but admits that five million pounds is a lot of money so yes, she would. Churchill then asks if she would sleep with him for 5 pounds. Insulted, the noblewoman asks Churchill, “Five pounds?! What do you think I am?” To which Churchill replies, “We have already established what you are — now we are simply haggling over price.” Of course, this is an apocryphal story that never happened, but it’s a good lesson in degrees. What levels are we willing to tolerate for what payoff? If morality is incidental and subjective to an experience, then can’t those morals also be transactional? How much would it take for you to give up your beliefs, and what does that say about those beliefs?
A dark comedy centered around the violent haggling over price, Cheap Thrills from director E.L. Katz is a pulpy morality play that asks these questions with just enough nastiness and black humor that it never feels too much like a retread. Craig (Healy) just lost his job and is facing eviction along with his wife and baby. While he composes his anxious thoughts at a bar, he runs into his old friend, Vince (Ethan Embry), a debt collector for loan sharks. Their reunion is interrupted when they meet up with Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton), an absurdly rich couple trying to scare up fun for Violet’s birthday. Colin begins throwing money around the bar, and even directs some of it towards Craig and Vince — provided they fulfill a dare or two. The dares gradually increase in severity throughout the night as the party returns to Colin’s house; going from who can down a shot of tequila fastest to actions that will have lasting consequences for all involved. The question, of course, becomes what are you willing to do and what’s the price for you to do it?
This is not the freshest plot — there are many stories about seductive rich people tempting the unfortunate to commit deplorable acts against themselves and others. That familiarity makes it hard to be truly impressed by Cheap Thrills; it’s not shocking to learn that the “average guy” is just as dark and violent as the supposed thug. But what sets Katz’s film apart and breathes some life into this old tale are the strong performances by the four leads and the realistic escalation of these sickening actions. Healy eschews all vanity in his role as Craig and appears believably cornered by his circumstances, while Embry capably plays an utterly opportunistic man at home in this debauched frenzy. The MVPs of the film, though, are Koechner and Paxton as the entitled puppetmasters, removed from the proceedings yet sinisterly instigating its escalation. Koechner uses audiences’ familiarity with his jovial characters to subvert a role that would otherwise come off as too predatory or cartoony. Instead, he’s a boorish rich dick that sees opportunities for entertainment instead of people. Meanwhile Paxton delivers a great performance with less than 10 lines, seeming like a bored socialite detached from the insanity and yet remaining in total command of everything. Despite a lack of dialogue, her character has one of the strongest presences on the screen making her more dangerous than the motormouth Colin. The characters feel like people, and the action ratchets up at a logical, if horrific, pace instead of becoming over the top or ridiculous. Each previous “dare” leads to the next, each step neatly escalates into another until there’s only one way this whole thing can end.
The tension is also helped by the darkly comic elements that writers David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga injected into their script. It’s not a film of witty banter, but instead an ironic absurdity filtered through these outrageous acts — The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie by way of Johnny Knoxville. And while the reprehensible acts themselves have been topped in other films, their realistic portrayal makes them more impactful (and ripe for comic reactions). Though it is a tale we’ve heard before, the relatable characters, realistic tone, and wicked comic streak give Cheap Thrills a unique voice in examining the degrees to which we are all for sale.