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SXSW Review: 'Cheap Thrills'

It's all fun and games, until it's not, in effective, economical thriller

By James Rocchi Mar 9, 2013 4:03PM
Rating: 4/5

Craig (Pat Healy, "Compliance") is having a bad day -- an eviction notice on the door of the apartment he and his wife Audrey (Amanda Fuller) live in with their 15–month old son, then losing his job at an oil-change place, his ambitions of being a writer submerged in a tsunami of obligations and expenses. He goes to a bar for one entirely understandable drink; he runs into his old school friend Vince (Ethan Embry), who's now a nickel-and-dime collections man-slash-legbreaker. One drink becomes a few, and then the old friends make new friends in Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sarah Paxton), out celebrating her birthday with drinks and coke and friendly bets. Which they then join in -- $200 if you can make a strange woman slap you, $500 for punching the bouncer first. The party winds up at Colin and Violet's place in the Hollywood Hills, where the decor is beautiful and the 'friendly' bets get ugly ...

Directed by E.L. Katz and written by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo, "Cheap Thrills" is a thriller -- or a horror movie about our current economy, where the 1% mess with the 99 simply because they can. Colin -- a rambling shambling coke-fueled party machine -- has enough cash in his house to make his bets for Craig and Vince involve more and more money, and enough booze, pills and conspicuous consumption to make the two play along. Shaw once famously said to a young lady who said she would sleep with him for a million pounds but, when he then offered 5 pounds for the same privilege then asked with shock what kind of a woman he thought she was, "We've already established what kind of woman you are; now, we're just negotiating price." Colin and Violet are pitting two old friends against each other, and Craig and Vince are just fighting over the price of their obedience.

The closing title treatment suggests Haneke's "Funny Games," but the staging and play of the film itself play more like, say, "Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?" -- but only if George and Martha were asking their guests to cut off a pinkie finger for a sum of thousands that the two old friends then bargain down, adding a literal meaning to the phrase 'Lowest Bidder.' In a film this contained, the concern is that the proceedings might come to feel more theatrical than cinematic, but Katz's eye for edits and ear for whispers make it clear that's not a problem here. (There's, for one example, a great moment early on with the silent, seemingly-bored Violet, always texting on her phone, when we realize what she's really doing...)

At the same time, the film is a showcase for its actors -- Koechner showing a malice and menace he's not displayed before while still having the comedic energy his prior roles have worked from, Embry an impulsive but ingratiating thug, Paxton a femme fatale with high-end lingerie and low-level morals. Yet it's Healy, as a broken-down everyman with many problems and few options, who makes the film -- Craig is brazen and craven, weak-willed but determined, his decency slowly crumbling until it gives way like a dam giving way to dark, roiling waters. 

Some will find Colin's and Violet's motives specious -- or, like Eric Kohn of Indiewire, wonder why they're 'wasting' so much money -- but to a certain kind of jaded sadist, the title cheap thrills Craig and Vince deliver are worth every penny, wanton winners of our dog-eat-dog economy (a phrase epitomized in one of the film's most upsetting scenes) who, like little boys with flies, are cruel as sport. Cynical, amoral, tense and superbly shot and performed, "Cheap Thrills" is worth your consideration. 

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