CHEAP THRILLS Review: Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
Recently, for DVD Verdict, I reviewed the Blu-ray release of Daniel Stamm‘s 13 SINS (2014). The independent thriller is about a man who has a family to care for but has recently lost his job. A mysterious stranger (who is only ever heard over the phone) offers him money to perform a series of challenges, and he does so, but with increasing peril and increasing trepidation as the intensity of the challenges and their monetary value also increase.
When I heard the Internet buzz about E.L. Katz‘s Cheap Thrills, I didn’t know what I was going to get was an independent thriller about a man who has a family to care for but has recently lost his job, who encounters a mysterious stranger (albeit in person) who offers him money to perform a series of challenges, and he does so, but with increasing peril and increasing trepidation as the intensity of the challenges and the monetary value also increase.
Would it be deja vu all over again?
(Here’s a hint: no.)
The sad sack in this film is Craig (Pat Healy), a fairly new father who, with his wife Audrey (Amanda Fuller), has fallen on hard financial times and has just been served an eviction notice. On the day he plans to hit up his boss for a raise, he’s laid-off instead. While drowning his sorrows at a local bar, he’s approached by an old friend, Vince (Ethan Embry). Vince does some unscrupulous collection work and Craig is desperate enough to ask about working with him.
Before that conversation can go any further, Craig and Vince meet Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton), a rich couple with time and money to burn. For their own amusement, Colin starts offering Craig and Vince cash to perform silly tasks, although in competition with each other: who can take a shot of alcohol the fastest for $50, or who can anger a waitress enough to slap them in the face for $200. Craig is slow on the upstart, but once he sees Vince cashing in, he engages in the competition, which moves from the bar to a strip club to Colin and Violet’s house. And as the locations change and the clock ticks and the alcohol flows, the stakes are raised, both in cash available and dare intensity. How far each man will go is ultimately revealed at the end of the film.
There is plenty to like about this film, which takes what is usually the (entertaining but) outlandish premise of people preforming extreme tasks for cash, and people willing to pay big sums of money to be entertained, and turns it into a satire on society’s obsession with self-deprecation in the pursuit of easy money, and its seemingly insatiable need to be entertained by greater and greater extremes. Cheap Thrills taps deep into that.
On the contestant side, you have a society with a rich history of people who have been willing to debase themselves for the amusement of others with the hopes of significant (and relatively instant) financial compensation on gameshows from Let’s Make a Deal (and maybe earlier than that) to Survivor, and even including non-competition “reality” shows like Bridezillas. Regardless of the core reasons for doing so, from desperation to greed, the goal of the contestants has been Fortune, be it monetary, compensatory, or reputational (by way of celebrity). Many of these shows, particularly the more recent of them, turn their contestants into characters – people we can root for or against.
Your characters/contestants in this film are Craig and Vince. Craig is the hero. Craig is the guy who has been trying to do it right. He’s a blue collar guy who doesn’t live beyond his means yet struggles to make ends meet. He takes a little time to play the game because the concept of doing wrong is foreign to him, let alone doing wrong for money. Craig is the good guy.
Vince, on the other hand, is the anti-hero. Vince is the guy who has probably taken shortcuts all his life. He collects for loan sharks. He lusts after Violet. He engages in the game as soon there is a whiff of money because he sees money first, morals second. But because his behavior – even against his own friend – is within the context of the game, his actions make him less of a bad guy and more of a brute. He’s kind of like a hockey enforcer – he does some mean things, but it’s within the rules and it’s all for the win. It gives him a little more complexity that he is charming.
Yes, the actions these men take are extreme (although, truth be told, some actions taken on a real-life show like Fear Factor were far more extreme than some – SOME – of the things here), but the extremity is there partly for our entertainment (as film viewers) and partly for the satire: people will do anything for money, even … well, see for yourself. These characters are no different than the people we watch on television night after night and week after week, whether they are dealing or surviving or even getting married. One is desperate and one is greedy, and we know who we want to see win.
Healy does well in the role of Craig, but Embry is a real standout as Vince. He channels a little bit of that ornery McConauhgey charm to good effect, but with enough coyness that he leaves you wondering if he is actually part of the game.
On the spectator side, you have a society with a rich history of people who have been willing to pay more and more and more as long as what they are getting is bigger and better and more extreme. The cost of entertainment can be monstrous (consider NFL Personal Seat Licenses, which are fees paid – sometimes in the thousands of dollars – for the privilege of buying the tickets for the seats); the size of entertainment can be monstrous (a 90″ flat screen is not out of reach for the general public); and the extremity of the entertainment can be monstrous (six letters: MMA PPV). Add to that the luxuries that are basically commonplace: cable packages worth hundreds of dollars, streaming services providing instant gratification, full (albeit compact) entertainment centers in consumer vehicles. If there is money to be spent there is entertainment to be had, no matter where or when or what, and we are always ready to spend to be entertained.
Your consumers/spectators are Colin and Violet. They don’t necessarily have the depth of character that Craig and Vince do and they don’t need it. They are Everyman. They are Us. Craig is more aggressive in his need to be entertained, though. He spends money, and when the memory of what he has just paid for quickly fades, he pays more money for bigger thrills. (There’s even a bit about what he’s wiling to compromise – in a non-financial sense – that shouldn’t be spoiled here.) Violet is passive to the point that she is so desensitized to the extremities that she simply has little care for what happens, which is another great societal commentary. And yet, because it’s what people do, she records the events for posterity on her smart phone.
Keochner is fantastic as the money man who cannot spend enough or get enough and needs to do more of both. He’s a funny guy who plays the (somewhat) serious role well; I’m reminded of Larry Miller in that sense.
In the end (with a spectacular final shot worthy of its own poster), there is a winner and a loser and spectators who call it a night. Just like we do.
While the two films have their similarities, 13 SINS is more fantastical, with its mystery caller, its bigger bucks for bigger stakes, a broader conspiracy theory, and an extra couple of toes in the horror waters. Cheap Thrills is more intimate, more intelligent and satirical, and in a sense more realistic. That also makes it the better film.