Review: 'Cheap Thrills' is a black-comedy masterpiece about the way we live today
AUSTIN - The biggest acquisition story out of this year's SXSW festival so far came when Drafthouse Films picked up "Cheap Thrills," and now that I've seen the film, I can vouch that it is money well-spent.
Drafthouse Films has demonstrated eclectic taste in what they will or won't pick up so far, and any company that will release "Miami Connection" and "Bullhead" and give both the same amount of attention and support is a company that intrigues me. This summer, they're releasing "The Act Of Killing," a documentary that made my top ten list last year after I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival, and while I think that's an incredibly important release, and a film that I want people to see, a documentary about an Indonesian genocide is not the easiest sell of all time. I recognize that they're taking a big chance with that film, and I respect that they're willing to do it. Any distributor who wants to stay in business has to play the commercial game as well, and "Cheap Thrills" is the sort of pick-up that I can get behind critically, but that has a real shot at being a commercial title for them as well, and that is exciting.
Let me be clear up front: "Cheap Thrills" is a brilliant, brutal, furious piece of filmmaking that illuminates who we are right now in one of the ugliest ways I've ever seen. This is not a light or silly film, and it is not an easy film to watch at times. But the hook is the kind that you can explain easily to people, and the cast is just well-known enough to help sell the movie, and I suspect that this is a word of mouth film, the kind that people will tell their friends about as soon as they see it. I feel downright evangelical about it, and I am amazed at how right it gets every move.
Written by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga, "Cheap Thrills" tells the story of one long and awful night in the life of Craig, played by Pat Healy. He's a writer whose career has stalled, and to support his family, he's been working as an auto mechanic. When he gets laid off on the same day he finds an eviction notice demanding $4500 within three days on his front door, he has no idea how he's going to keep his family in their home. He goes to a bar to try and think things through and runs into an old friend, Vince (Ethan Embry), who he hasn't seen in years.
That random encounter kicks off a downward spiral that is accelerated when Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton) roll into the bar, celebrating her birthday with a night out on the town. Colin is loaded, and he doesn't mind flashing his money around. He's not above tipping the bartender several hundred dollars to look the other way while he does cocaine off the table. He makes a few harmless dares to the two guys, paying them money for things like getting slapped by a woman at the bar or smacking a stripper on the ass, and both guys respond to the bait. Craig has to. He doesn't have any other obvious options, and he has to go home to face his wife with no money and no solution. Vince, though, seems far more predatory right from the start. He wants the money, sure, but more importantly, he doesn't want Craig to have it.
From that simple dynamic, director E.L Katz expertly orchestrates a humiliating series of tests for Craig and Vince. They go back to the house that Colin and Violet have in the Hollywood Hills, and as they look out over the city, surrounded by opulence, they are tested. Physically, mentally, emotionally… it's a horrifying game, played out by the haves and using the have-nots. It is a blunt instrument of a metaphor, but just because it's obvious doesn't mean it's wrong.
Pat Healy has given a lot of great performances over the years. He was memorably menacing in last year's "Compliance," and I'm a big fan of "Great World Of Sound," but I think "Cheap Thrills" is going to put him on every director's wish list. He has an incredibly difficult job here, playing Craig, because we have to believe each new degradation. We have to believe that he's not going to walk out of that house in moral outrage. I've seen plenty of films that have lost me at key moments because I just don't believe the choices made by the characters. Healy keeps bringing things back to that crushing responsibility that you feel as a husband and a father when you're afraid that you are not doing everything you can to take care of them. The pain that underlines every choice he makes is palpable, and yet never overplayed.
Ethan Embry is essentially unrecognizable in the film, and any trace of the young actor from "Dutch" or "Can't Hardly Wait" is long gone. I've seen plenty of actors who try to make themselves look rugged or beaten down, but Embry looks like life has genuinely treated him badly in recent years, and that's perfect for the role of Vince. While Healy is playing a man motivated by a hunter-gatherer's sense of duty, Vince is pure appetite, a guy who will always want more no matter what he gets, and who has never had enough to curb that hunger. While it's obvious that Craig and Vince were friends once, life has beaten most of that out of them. The power of Embry's performance comes from the way he shows those few moments of recognition, those tiny hints of the shared past, and it is subtle and nuanced work.
The couple that drives the film would seem to be a rich opportunity for overacting, but David Koechner and Sara Paxton are excellent in the roles. I've known Koechner for at least a decade now, and I've watched how frustrated he has been by some of the roles he's been offered. It's a common frustration for actors who have become well-known for comedy, and in Dave's case, one of the things I've wanted to see for years has been a film where someone tapped into his darker side. He's a big guy, and there is something very imposing about him on a physical level. In this film, he is finally able to play a part that isn't funny at all, or at least not in the conventional sense. There are some very upsetting laughs in the film, but there is nothing about his performance that I would call a joke. He is a grinning malicious Satan, slowly tempting both Craig and Vince down a destructive path, and Paxton does largely silent work as his wife, constantly photographing each new humiliation, barely reacting to what is ostensibly a game for her enjoyment.
I love that this is a reunion for Healy and Paxton, who were great in Ti West's "The Innkeepers," because this is a demonstration of the range they both have as performers. One of my friends who saw "Cheap Thrills" had no idea he was watching the same two actors here, and even once I told him, he had a hard time accepting it. That film has a great gentle sense of humor, and a lovely quiet attitude, and "Cheap Thrills" is all rough edges and barely restrained fury. There are many genre films that pay lip service to larger social issues as an excuse to pile on the gore, but "Cheap Thrills" is a film that works as entertainment first, but it offers up a vital and horrifying discussion of the growing division between the haves and the have nots, and as a glimpse of what could be, it is truly chilling.
Drafthouse Films and Snoot Entertainment will work together to release "Cheap Thrills" theatrically, and as soon as we have more details, we will gladly share them.
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