Cheap Thrills is the kind of film whose trailers you should avoid. Fortunately, there aren’t previews to awkwardly click around on YouTube. The 2013 Wisconsin Film Festival was treated to, in addition to the presence of director E.L. Katz and star Pat Healy, an early screening of Cheap Thrills and just over a month after its premiere at South By Southwest in Austin.
Healy stars as a struggling family man who receives a final eviction notice and a bogus explanation about “downsizing” his position at the autoshop and all in the same day. With an unemployed wife and a young son, Healy is already struggling to make ends meet, but with no income and little hope on the horizon, he wallows in his sadness at a bar where he runs into, of all people, long-time-no-see friend Ethan Embry. After reminiscing about their high school days, the pair get swept up by the charming David Koechner, an unruly mogul with an obnoxious porkpie hat and, more importantly for two friends down on their luck, stacks and stacks of money to blow. An after-work cocktail begets shots of $300 tequila begets an intense night-long game of one-upsmanship and extreme dares, and Healy and Embry see the fragments of an old relationship dissolve even further as the stakes get higher and the stacks get fatter.
To say anything more about Cheap Thrills’ specifics would ruin much of the fun as Katz’s schizophrenic debut benefits from its catching viewers off guard. Cheap Thrills’ tone is pretty scattershot, shifting from self-reflection to drunken ribaldry to bloody, bloody, bloody mayhem and often with a single scene. Usually the attitudes Katz draws from his actors feel right at home with the free-wheeling “anything goes” demeanor of someone who snorts lines of blow in a dive bar bathroom, but the transitions betweens moods aren’t always elegant. Perhaps that’s by design. When Cheap Thrills really throws down the gauntlet — via a bet involving a meat cleaver — a character’s sudden acquiescence takes on a “YOLO” nonchalance that feels out of sync. The bet’s ensuing tension is plenty squirm-worthy, but such a sudden character development blindsides the viewer.
What the heck happened to Ethan Embry after Fox’s ill-fated Freakylinks? As Healy’s old high school chum, Embry’s comedic timing is spot-on and even in moments that require little outside of broey “holy crap” reactions. Both Embry and Healy hold their own alongside a comedy heavyweight like Anchorman’s David Koechner, who hits his expectedly outrageous moments but also nails the silent intensity inside his character’s darker motives. One of Cheap Thrills strengths is its handling of Koechner’s soft spoken trophy wife (Sara Paxton). The film plays her close to the chest, forming an intriguing dynamic between her and Healy while still getting some laughs out of constantly cutting to Paxton’s blasé phone gazing. Cheap Thrills’ real star however is its lead. As excellent as Healy is as The Innkeepers’ pitiable sad sack or the detestable prankster in last year’s Compliance, Healy shows an incredible amount of range in his misery, desperation, and deadpan delivery.
Shot with beautifully crisp photography courtesy of Andrew Wheeler and Sebastian Winterø, Cheap Thrills’s looseness with camera focus and framing sells the premise’s wacko spontaneity, the idea of winging it for a night with some pretty desperate people. Yet Cheap Thrills is anything but one-dimensional pleasure-seeking. It taps into a broader, bloodier commentary on the financial destitution of recession America but also casts its judging gaze at the masochistic nature of the movie audience itself. Should Drafthouse Pictures expand Cheap Thrills to Madison, beyond the 20 city estimate Katz gave in a post-screening Q&A, this is one to watch for. Think Michael Haneke rewrites The Hangover — you just won’t have to worry about any tired sequels. Pinky swear.