Cheap Thrills (2014) (Not Rated)

"Cheap Thrills" is not exactly a movie that you'd want your parents to see, unless (however unlikely) your parents were huge fans of "Antichrist". The point being, E. L. Katz's movie is less about the story within and more about the continuing sequences of unexpected physical horror and gross-out moments that always try to top themselves. Yet here again, we brace ourselves for the inevitable onslaught of mayhem and gore and the result that we actually get tries so desperately to be more psychologically disturbing than anything else so we can put down the barf bag with reassurance that we may not need it later. Which brings us back again to movies that have done what "Cheap Thrills" is doing much, much better...but perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself.
Craig (Pat Healy) is a man whose life is stuck in a stalemate. He has a wife and a kid and his responsibilities are starting to drown him. He wants to be a writer, but works at a car garage instead as a mechanic. In one day, the rug is pulled from beneath his feet. He gets an eviction notice placed on his door and he gets fired from his job...not exactly a highlight for Craig.
Not wanting to return home to his wife, he spends the rest of the day in a bar where he runs into an old highschool friend, Vince (Ethan Embry). After a few drinks and the discussion of what one does for money, Craig and Vince get courted by a mysterious and gregarious couple, Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton). These two are celebrating Violet's birthday and they don't want to drink alone. Just as the money problems are the more clear inside Craig's head (he needs $4,500 dollars to not be evicted) it just so happens that Colin and Violet are extremely rich. They throw money at each other like it was something else....definitely not money. They have a wager on how the old man at the bar will size up the bartender. Each time one of them is right, that's another hundred dollars for them.
So begins the game: what would you do for money?
The first glimpse we get of this is a contest to see who can drink a shot faster...fifty bucks to the winner.
As the night progresses and Craig gets more and more uncomfortable with the jests, the wages get higher and we can all tell that this is going to be nasty by its finish...what is surprising is how not nasty it really is.
The film is celebratory in its "depravation" and it tries to convince us that these characters are at their wits' end. I'm not convinced. Craig seems to have everything going for him, except for money and he keeps reminding us of that fact. Vince just seems to be greedy.
"Cheap Thrills" is more about character development than anything else. It's about how people can morph given the most extreme of conditions and in doing this, the film attempts to pull back some curtain and let us see the real people underneath. Yet I find that people under this kind of duress are hardly genuine.
For as grotesque as the movie attempts to be, it's a rather melancholy and optimistic in its view of morality. We see these thrills as bad and we condemn the actions thereof.
The biggest and most glaring issue of the movie is the uncanny resemblance it has to Michael Haneke's "Funny Games". The ending, the set up, the false expectations...there are all here and they were all in Haneke's film. This would be fine if "Cheap Thrills" has the power that "Funny Games" did. Alas, one is a much finer piece of work.
"Cheap Thrills" doesn't trust itself enough to go for the gritty, to surge towards the unspeakable, and to push the viewer to the breaking point...if you want that, watch "Funny Games".
The film breathes a low budget feel, so it's impressive with what they were able to do. The performances here are good, but not great. Katz's tendency to let us rest and catch our breath is rather irksome, but hey, this is the movie that will most likely be his stepping stone.
"Cheap Thrills" could be exactly what its title says, but I was wanting something more.

Score: ★★½

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