Cheap, but Very Disturbing, Thrills Found in Fantastic Fest Screening
No matter how good the script, no matter how well acted the performances, no matter how creatively directed the movie, I worry about anyone who gives Cheap Thrills (shown during Fantastic Fest at Alamo Drafthouse) an extremely high rating. That is because the subject matter becomes so disturbing as it unfolds, you’d have to be a little disturbed yourself to admit that you actually “liked” it.
No spoilers, but after watching it, I wanted to run home and give my dogs a big hug and tell them how much I love them. Let’s put the subject matter aside for right now, though, and see if the script, acting and direction are any good.
The script by newcomer David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga (American Maniacs) is clever, if not a little familiar. I’d suggest reading nothing about Cheap Thrills (except this review, of course) before watching it. When Craig (Pat Healy, The Innkeepers) awakens to find an eviction notice on the door of his family’s apartment and then is fired from his job later in the day, you know he’s at the end of his rope, but you don’t know how desperate he is to climb back up it.
He runs into an old friend at a bar and you begin to speculate, but until the two of them meet a rich married couple buying $300 bottles of tequila for complete strangers, you have no idea where the story is going to take you. Even then, you expect the worst. But the story fools you into thinking its going to take a lighter, comedic approach. Once it inevitably veers toward the gruesome, though, there’s no turning back.
The initial ambiguity is reflected through the character of Craig. As dire a situation as his life is in, he doesn’t jump to any rash decisions. In fact, you kind of want him to take action earlier than he does. On the other hand, it perfectly demonstrates the kind of man he is and explains how he may have let himself get into such a pitiful situation. Healy does a great job of playing all the nuances.
The normally familiar, baby-faced Ehtan Embry (Vacancy) is unrecognizable as Craig’s bearded buddy, Vince. You know Vince is trouble from the beginning, but he devolves further as his true colors are shown. While Craig consciously decides to do things to earn the money he needs, Vince is simply greedy. Which one do you think will become more dangerous? That was the most interesting and unique aspect for me while watching Cheap Thrills.
David Koechner (Anchorman) steals the show as Colin. We don’t know where he got the $250,000 in his safe at home, nor does it matter. He’s merely orchestrating the chaos that ensues. He’s one of those actors/comedians whom it’s hard to watch without laughing. Sara Paxton (also The Innkeepers) is mostly silent as his wife celebrating her birthday and taking photos of everything that happens on her phone. She’s mysteriously sexy throughout.
Finally, the direction by E.L. Katz is a little unique in that so much of the movie is shot in close-up. If that’s intended to make you feel more uncomfortable than you already are, it certainly works. But it got a little too claustrophobic for me even before the story turned ugly. I’m guessing it’s the script more than the story that propels Cheap Thrills forward; however, it does take a competent director to keep it from spinning completely out of control.
So now comes the conundrum. We have a movie with a decent script that takes you to unexpected places. We have actors who elicit emotions from the audience. And we have everything wrapped together in a tight 85-minute package. That sounds like a high rating to me. But then you consider the subject matter. It’s extremely rough, sometimes hard to watch and I don’t have it in me to say that I “liked” Cheap Thrills. So I give it a respectable 3 out of 5. That’s above average, which it is, but doesn’t necessarily indicate that I’d recommend it. I don’t want anyone to think I’m as disturbed as it is.