Overview: A man struggling to support his family meets an old friend at a bar and ends up in a disturbing game of dares. New Artists Alliance; 2014; Not Rated; 88 Minutes.
A Fallen Man: Upon first glance, Craig (Pat Healy) immediately recalls Michael Douglas in Falling Down, with his tight haircut, awkward posture, and large rimmed glasses. Not a flattering comparison on a film level, to be sure, as Joel Schumacher’s film has aged itself into noticeably racist territory. But thematically, the connection is important. Cheap Thrills is at its best when it measures the tension and strain of being a middle class man supporting a family in the current unstable economic environment. Healy’s everyman accessibility, both in appearance and strained personality, helps tighten the supportive real-life knot that sits behind the knot of horror absurdity.
A Familiar Format: There’s been a noticeable rise of movies lately wherein a group of individuals is pulled into a life-or-death competition by sadistic individuals with the means to host a sadistic competition (Would You Rather?, Vile, The Exam, The Final, Truth or Die). Often, these films involve a struggling hero who uses the game as a way out of his/her difficult circumstance. These movies provide mostly generic exhibitions of the human will to survive and sophomoric, simplified statements toward the immorality of a divided class system. Where Cheap Thrills is tired in structure, it is fresh in its patience. Cheap Thrills has no ambition to make a sweeping societal diagnosis or philosophical thesis. The struggle is kept within a personal container. Both the game and the technique in filming it are skillfully measured. There is no singular moment that goes too far for the sake of shock.
The Hosts: As Colin and Violet, the loaded drunk partiers hosting the competition, David Koechner and Sara Paxton are delightfully comfortable. The characters are divorced of the common and predictable cold, detached personalities expected of roles that hosts illegal human competitions. Paxton and Koechner perform the characters as two maniacal individuals, high on drugs and carrying stacks of cash, who get carried away with a bad idea, but enjoy every progressive level. This might be the best use of Koechner’s unhinged, oddball energy that I’ve ever seen.
Overall: While not the freshest plot-line, Cheap Thrills offers enough innovation to keep the film enjoyable.