Re:View – ‘Cheap Thrills’

Film

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It’s got to the point now where the words ‘low budget horror film’ turn me off completely. Apart from the paucity of their imagination, they usually have no moral compass and therefore events carry no dramatic weight. Every once in a while you do find a gem, though, and this is one. ‘Horror’ is perhaps a misnomer (imDb calls it a ‘crime thriller’, which is also wrong) because ‘Cheap Thrills’ plays out like Polanski’s ‘Carnage’, in which essentially good people behave badly, crossed with ‘The Comfort Of Strangers’, in which people are unknowably evil.

Coming from first-time director E. L. Katz, and scribes David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga, this is a modern morality tale that you’d have to be fairly dumb towrite off as purely exploration fare (so of course some critics have done just that). The idea is simple; at what point do you start betraying yourself for money?

Craig has fallen into the newly expanded American wealth gap. With a baby and an eviction notice, the failed writer turned greasemonkey has also lost his job, so he hits a bar and bumps into old school chum Vince, now an ex-con. Buying them drinks that night is Colin, celebrating the birthday of stunning, silent, bored Violet, and flashing the cash until Craig’s eyes are on stalks.

Colin (played superbly by David Koechner) has the gleaming eye of a gambler, and starts throwing bets around – who can drink the fastest shot, who can pick up the girl at the bar, innocent stuff at first but you know it will escalate…

However, this isn’t as simple a moral plunge as you’d expect; the old friends find themselves at odds not just over the money they stand to win but over the paths they took and the hand that life has dealt them. The film has been described as a fable and a black comedy, although Katz’s ability to crank up the tension causes any dark laughter to dry in the throat until the third act, which shifts into more extreme territory – and even then it doesn’t go for the entire gross-out that you’d expect.

Unusually, it’s in this last section that the focus tightens to examine the real moralities of the two men, culminating in a superb final frame that looks like a still shot by Gregory Crewdson.

Through all of this, the character of Colin remains a mystery – is he a Loki-figure, driving men toward their worst instincts? And is Violet, his wife, as complacent as she seems, or is she the real force for chaos behind the pair as she sets about recording everything for posterity? It’s as intriguing a debut as Tarantino’s, but with more smarts.