Craig Daniels (Pat Healy) is a mechanic and a family man. At least, he was a mechanic. Then he got fired. On the same day that he received an eviction notice. As he scrubs his grimy hands at the end of his short last day, a closeup reveals the wedding ring on his finger. A finger that is tensely tapping against the sink with the knowledge that its owner has fallen into dire straits.
Enter Vince (Ethan Embry), the sleazy but well meaning high school friend of Craig. Vince is a debt collector. The off-the-books type of debt collector. Then enter Colin (David Koechner), a seemingly well-off stranger who just wants some drinking company on his wife Violet’s (Sara Paxton) birthday. As per the genre’s usual tropes, something seems off about Colin and Violet. Colin is uncharacteristically charismatic and friendly. Violet is uninterested in almost everything.
As the night moves on and the drinks start flowing, Colin starts engaging Craig and Vince in a series of bets. They are innocent bets, but they come with tempting sums of money that Craig may not be able to pass up. And, once again invoking usual tropes of this type of movie, the stakes inevitably raise.
Cheap Thrills is on sight an intriguing little thriller. There are many out there like it, though, and that might be the film’s major pitfall. It is reminiscent of the thrillers Would You Rather and 13 Sins (albeit, 13 Sins came out after Cheap Thrills), and, in one particular scene, oddly reminiscent of Four Rooms. Considering this company alone, Cheap Thrills is a superior film.
However, all of these “real-life game show” thrillers seem to have something in common. Reality ends up taking a backseat. The premise centers around seeing how far the average person will go to fulfill some basic need when pushed into the right corner. The protagonist’s motivation, though, never seems to warrant accepting the extremity of the situation.
Here, too, our protagonist Craig’s motivation runs thin as the ante gets continually upped. His financial woes have real-world solutions, and the fact that they were sprung upon him instantaneously gives him all the more reason to seek better options before going down the dark path that this film puts forth.
The true reason for these movies is to see normal people do abnormal things. And grotesque abnormal things at that. In the end, that premise just isn’t very interesting. With each step toward pure animalism, characters that once had promise melt into one-dimension and the so-called cheap thrills become boring.
Cheap Thrills, to its credit, has a few things going for it. The performances are all good. Pat Healy does a decent job as a man who slowly breaks bad. But, as previously stated, the loss of realism makes it so his character is monochromatic.
Similarly monochromatic is Ethan Embry’s Vince. Only, Vince has no saving moments. He is either completely for or completely against what is happening, and in both instances he is furious and drug-addled. His character leaves much to be desired.
Koechner has a strong performance as the wealthy sadistic, but the intrigue of his character wanes as the movie progresses into the second act. He fills the shoes of the persona very well and has a scarily humorous air about him, but the shoes are small and the humor is often misplaced.
There are moments in Cheap Thrills where it tries to be something more than it is. Certain exchanges between characters are meant to have weight to them. But these scenes feel foreign to what is going on around them, especially considering the dark humor that laces the entire plot. This leads to numerous tone shifts that clearly unbalance the film. Considering the narrative leads to exactly where the average viewer would expect it to lead, these heavy moments seem humorous in their own right.
When the final title card pops up on the screen, we are left with a conventional torture porn thriller. What appears at first to be an exciting dark comedy ends up being a blasé shock film that muddies the comedy with sight gags and unimpressive character arcs.
Cheap Thrills definitely has its moments. For what it is, it isn’t unwatchable. It blows Would You Rather out of the water by a long shot. And there are small nuanced things in the first half that are fun to see and that heighten the dark comedy. The second half is what ruins it, and the small nuanced things therein actually tipped off the climax for me. There is something to be said for Cheap Thrills, there just isn’t a lot.
As always, thanks for reading!
Have you seen Cheap Thrills? If so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!
–Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)