We’ve all been there: a group of friends sitting around a table, someone asks if you’d do such-and-such for a million pounds, some unspeakable act. Awkward glances are exchanged until one daredevil pipes up and proudly proclaims that it would be easy, knowing full well that he’ll never actually be faced with that kind of dilemma. EL Katz’s debut feature is a demonically dark comedy that asks these questions of its protagonists again and again, and as the stakes rise Cheap Thrills makes its audience feel disgustingly voyeuristic. Intriguing and vile in equal measure, it’s like a Michael Haneke film except.. .Y’know… Fun.
Taking place over one eventful night, the film opens with Craig (Pat Healy) losing his job as a car mechanic. Timid and bespectacled, Craig comes across as a perennial underdog and, instead of going home to face his wife, young child, and mounting rent bills, he drowns his sorrows in a local dive bar. Here he runs into an old school mate, Vince (Ethan Embry), and the pair begin downing shots of tequila with a wealthy couple, Colin (David Koechner) and his disinterested wife Violet (Sara Paxton). The pair are clearly looking for a plaything and begin offering Craig and Vince initially small but significant sums of money to perform a series of increasingly dangerous and degrading dares. As the booze flows and the usually diffident Craig begins to open up he finds himself on a slippery slope towards self-destruction.
Cheap Thrills is shameless and gruesome in its execution, by the end it descends into a world of complete abhorrence and stretches its credibility to breaking point, yet it never becomes unwatchable. On the contrary, as limbs start getting hacked off and dogs eaten, it actually becomes much more enjoyable the deeper it goes, the final, grizzly shot making for a particularly delicious payoff, justifying the price of admission for that alone. One occasionally questions how believable it all is, but audiences will find it all too enjoyable for the film’s plausibility, or lack thereof, to really matter.
The cast all turn in solid performances, Healy is very easy to sympathise with as the pitiful protagonist, David Koechner is effortlessly smarmy and Sara Paxton gives depth to a character who could easily have been just another vacuous hollywood blonde. The strength of these performances is integral to making the film work as they give it legitimacy and keep it believable even as it strays into realms of implausibility.
Black comedy can be very difficult to get right, keeping the audience laughing when they feel uncomfortable requires a tact that so many filmmakers struggle with. Cheap Thrills has this in droves. Immensely funny and appallingly blunt at the same time, it’s a comedy with a soul as black as they come.