Cheap Thrills wouldn’t have half of its impact before the 2008 crash. At the very least, it would be far less resonant and more confusing. Sure, not everyone was living it up before 2008, but there was the sense of being able to get a job, and it was less obvious that 99% of the country was being ruled by the remaining 1%. We’re now in desperate times demanding desperate measures and the dark comedy of Cheap Thrills perfectly plays into our despair. Although it keeps hitting the same thematic notes, those notes becomes louder as director E.L. Katz and screenwriters David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga implicate the audience’s desire for not only more money, but more disturbing entertainment.
Craig (Pat Healy) is a father and husband who desperately money. His family is about to be evicted from they’re crummy apartment, and just as he’s planning to ask for a raise, he gets laid off from his job as a mechanic. Drowning his sorrows at a dive bar, Craig runs into his old pal from high school, Vince (Ethan Embry). Vince’s life isn’t going too well either as he has to make a living as a loan shark. As the two are commiserating, they come into the orbit of fellow patron Colin (David Koechner) and his hot wife Violet (Sara Paxton). Colin starts encouraging them with small bets like who can down tequila the fastest or get slapped by a woman at the bar. But as Colin starts enticing Craig and Vince with higher financial rewards, the bets become more depraved, and the old friends begin turning on each other as they compete for more cash.
The story is always teetering on the edge of ludicrous. There has to be a limit where a person would stop, and Colin will let them leave at any time. But there’s always just a little bit more money on the table. Craig can try to get enough to pay his rent, but what if he could get a little more money to give his family some breathing room? If there’s no place to make an honest living as a mechanic, then perhaps it’s better to try and rake in some tax-free dollars from a sadist. It’s not like there’s a better job waiting outside the door. Vince is in the same situation, but it’s easier to side with Craig since he has a family to support, and in trying to play the good husband and father, there’s always a moderately reasonable excuse to the actions he’s willing to endure.
This forces the question of how far we would go. We would certainly pound back expensive tequila in exchange for $50. We might even get a stranger to slap us for $100. But this question isn’t the interesting one. Most of us probably wouldn’t go as far as Craig and Vince, and Katz shoots their crazy acts with a dizzying, punch drunk approach so we begin to lose a grip on reality. We’re being pushed down into their darkness and despair, so we still identify with where they’re coming from, but when we look at ourselves, we can be fairly certain about our limits.
The more interesting question is about our thirst for entertainment. As Colin points out, this is like a game show. Survivor is a ridiculously popular TV series, and no one longer bats an eye at what those contestants are willing to do to “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast”. After all, there’s a million dollars on the line. All Colin is doing is creating a private game show and setting the rules. It’s a seriously fucked up game, but he’s wealthy enough to make it happen, and in this country, we all know the wealthy get what they want. What’s more, although he says this is present for Violet, she seems mostly disinterested. They could be any married couple watching Survivor: one is into the gross stuff and the other is more interesting in tapping away on a smartphone.
But we’re complicit in their desire for entertainment because Cheap Thrills is a damn entertaining film. The performances are terrific as Healy, Embry, and Koechner all show their range (I’m not familiar enough with Paxton’s body of work to make a judgment call), and Katz sets the mood perfectly. There’s always the looming question about whether or not we should “enjoy” this movie. It’s a dark comedy, and we’re clearly meant to laugh at some truly brutal moments. Katz deftly moves between the moral ambiguity and the gallows humor, and we never quite forget the larger stakes not only for the characters, but our own hunger for these “thrills”.
Our economic woes began in late 2008, and our craving for gross entertainment began long before that (e.g. public executions), and while Cheap Thrills is mostly surface, it’s a shiny, reflective one. Katz doesn’t pound us over the head with a message, and instead swallows us up with disturbing dares. No one can escape—Craig and Vince are greedy for money; Colin, Violent, and we are greedy for entertainment; and we’re all gluttons for punishment. Eat up.