Cheap Thrills: Film Review

One of the most involving works of cinematic misanthropy in years.

A rich, jaded married couple toys with two working-class friends in E.L. Katz's debut.

MONTREAL -- Movie theaters overflow with characters suffering for our sick pleasure, but few do so as directly as the poor bastards in E.L. Katz's Cheap Thrills, a picture of such undiluted nastiness it will certainly divide moviegoers into the revolted and the spellbound. Few will be bored. (Having taken home SXSW's Audience Award and the Best First Feature prize here, it seems to be winning more fans than detractors.) Provocative but not so extreme as to keep it out of mainstream cinemas, the film has commercial potential and should also connect with arthouse admirers of such cruel auteurs as Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke.

Pat Healy stars as Craig, an auto mechanic whose boss lays him off on the same day $4,500 in unpaid rent gets an eviction notice pasted to his door. Unable to go straight home to his wife and newborn son, he stops for a beer and bumps into Vince (Ethan Embry), a skateboarding pal from high school he hasn't seen in years.

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The men are befriended by Colin (David Koechner), a jovial man tossing money around in an effort to entertain his bored trophy wife Violet (Sara Paxton). As they make their way through a $300 bottle of tequila, then take the party to a strip club, Colin jovially makes casual dares -- I'll give you 50 bucks if you can get that lady at the bar to slap you -- that escalate in dollar value and intensity. Soon, somebody's recuperating in Colin's living room after getting KO'd by a bouncer.

The ride is seductive up to this point -- in the spirit of too-sudden boozy intimacy with strangers -- but turns sour and frightening. Colin has stacks of cash in his safe and wants to see what he can get Craig and Vince to do for it. Viewers may guess the nature of some of the requests to come but won't anticipate how they escalate or the way the two men soon compete to debase themselves. The story has obvious parallels with other rich-vs.-poor stories -- the "what's your price?" dilemma of Indecent Proposal, the dehumanizing sport in The Most Dangerous Game -- but Katz and his screenwriters complicate the plot by having these two working-class men turn on each other.

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Crucially, no matter how gruesome and violent the action gets, the filmmakers keep it acidly funny. Philosophical viewers can debate whether this flavor of entertaining sadism is more or less morally troubling than that of, say, von Trier. But Katz has a clear investment in Healy's character and convincingly depicts his choices as inevitable even when they become anything but.

Healy makes Katz's job easier, registering both desperation and the resignation of a man who has started down a treacherous road and sees no opportunity to change course. As the slumming Mephistopheles, Koechner is perfectly cast, exhibiting something more compelling than the big, dumb boorishness he often employs. Colin cajoles and moderates, destroying two lives while serving as a gracious host. The sickest thing is, he throws such a party viewers might want to be invited back.

Production companies: Snowfort Pictures, New Artists Alliance

Cast: Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, David Koechner, Sara Paxton, Amanda Fuller

Director: E.L. Katz

Screenwriters: David Chirchirillo, Trent Haaga

Producers: Gabriel Cowan, Travis Stevens, John Suits

Executive producers: Curtis Raines, Jonathan Schurgin, Gena Wilbur

Director of photography: Andrew Wheeler, Sebastian Wintero

Production designer: Melisa Jusufi

Music: Mads Heldtberg

Costume designer: Kelsey Stengle

Editor: Brody Gusar

No rating, 87 minutes