You ever play truth or dare and taken it further than you thought you would? Ever watch Fear Factor and think, “Sure, I could eat that boiled bull penis for cash…” Ever wonder what would you would really do for a Klondike bar? What about a few hundred bucks? A few thousand? More than a few thousand? Do you think your so-called “friend” is going to really be your friend when the chips are down? I mean like real chips that are really down? Remember those rich asshole Duke brothers, Randolph and Mortimer, ruining people’s lives for a friggin’ dollar? All that and more is explored in the darkly comic thriller, Cheap Thrills, from director E.L. Katz (you’ll be seeing his work in ABCs of Death 2 upcoming).
The set up for the film is rather simple: Husband and new father, Craig (Pat Healy) is in dire financial straits. He’s just gotten an eviction notice and a pink slip in the same day. Drowning his sorrows in a local bar, he runs into an old friend from high school that he hasn’t seen in five years, Vince (Ethan Embry). Vince is a professional, if not very well-compensated, leg breaker for a loan shark. And as fate would have it, they both cross paths with Colin and Violet (David Koechner, Sara Paxton), a couple with a wad of cash celebrating Violet’s birthday.
A few tequila shots turn into a few more, which turn into some semi-harmless dares by Colin to Vince and Craig for money, first at the bar, then at a strip club. The final ill-advised dare finds Craig hitting a bouncer, and then getting his lights punched out by same. When he awakes, he finds the party’s moved to Colin’s and Violet’s luxurious Hollywood Hills house, where the dares continue, and escalate…and escalate…and escalate. It just becomes a question of what Colin and Violet can think up for them to do, how much cash is on the line and how far Vince and Craig are willing to go.
Watching a movie of this sort as it progresses, it becomes expected that at some point a line is going to have to be crossed at the end and it’s pretty easy to surmise what that line is going to be. Although, while it’s not automatic that that’s where this film is going to end up, the anticipation builds nicely with each dare and transaction. The dares do get pretty interesting, and the expected self-abuse and mutilations make for occasionally cringe-worthy viewing. Although it surprised me a bit that Katz didn’t take the movie in certain directions that I thought he would but still managed to make for a surprising resolution. What really powered the film was watching the strength of the camaraderie between Craig and Vince ebb and flow as a fun game becomes more serious, and then a competition with futures on the line. And the old laments and recriminations that surfaced between the two friends made it that much more compelling.
Performances roundly are good. David Koechner holds court well as the ringmaster, Colin, with a surprisingly easy and likable demeanor in spite of the scoundrel he ends up being. It’s not too hard to imagine that Colin was the frat asshole who organized stupid shit to be done but had anybody’s back if anything bad went down. Sara Paxton slinks around nicely without saying too much. She embodies most the suspicion of just how evil are she and Colin if at all. Healy’s and Embry’s Craig and Vince have a complicated dynamic that runs the spectrum from old friends to new enemies and back. Their desperation, especially Craig’s is palpable. There’s one scene in particular that Vince brings up to Craig about their differing fortunes in life earlier still have led them to the same point. It really hits home that money (and cocaine, to quote Rick James) is a hell of a drug.
Cheap Thrills is available exclusively on the Movies On Demand platform of Time Warner Cable, Comcast, Cox Communications and Bright House Networks on February 21. It will be in select theaters & digital VOD platforms on March 21.