Desperate people do desperate things. If there is an underlying theme to E.L. Katz’ CHEAP THRILLS, then that would definitely be it, as it’s an impressive as hell look at how far people are willing to go, when they simply have everything at stake. Full of some of the best performances that I’ve seen in a long time, it’s also probably, aside from RESOLUTION, my favorite film of the year.
CHEAP THRILLS follows Craig (played so well by THE INNKEEPERS and COMPLIANCE star Pat Healy), a man who is having the worst of circumstances, while trying everything he can to keep his family together and off of the streets. Just in the first ten minutes of the film, Craig discovers an eviction notice on his door, gets fired from his job (thanks to Icons buddy Ruben Pla!), and hits the bar, the film doesn’t waste any time in letting viewers know that Craig is in bad shape.
While at the bar, Craig runs into Vince (Ethan Embry, CAN’T HARDLY WAIT, THAT THING YOU DO), a friend that he hasn’t seen in five years, who is also now the guy who breaks bones when people can’t repay bets and loans. In the middle of catching up, Craig and Vince meet Colin and Violet, a married couple (played by David Koechner in probably his best role to date, and Sara Paxton) who make it known right away that they’re definitely rolling in the dough. While the brutish Vince is attracted to the couple’s money, Craig is so desperate, that when Colin begins to offer the two money in exchange for things like getting a woman at the bar to smack them, or to punch a bouncer at a strip club, Craig begins to do whatever they ask in an attempt to make sure his family is taken care of.
While it all begins as a fun time, when the gang heads back to the couple’s expensive home, things begin to slowly get more serious and definitely a lot bloodier, and the film begins to raise more serious questions, such as “what would you do to take care of your family?”. It’s a great examination of how desperate people can get, and also how easily money can make people turn against each other. As Colin raises the bets, and offers more and more money, Vince begins to show his enforcer side, and little by little, the night and bets get continually heavier, resulting in some pretty interesting twists.
What sets CHEAP THRILLS apart from films like THE HANGOVER or similar entries filled with debauchery, is the fact that though CHEAP THRILLS is filled with fun and bad decisions, there’s a combination of heart and consequences that go with that fun. With films like THE HANGOVER, you know that the gang will be fine by the end of the movie, and that there is really no chance of someone not walking away. The characters in CHEAP THRILLS don’t have that happy ending vibe to them. Craig is at his rope’s end from the beginning of the film, and as a viewer, you know that he wouldn’t subject himself to such awful things, if his wife and child weren’t about to be homeless. It’s a character that you want to succeed so bad, and that’s largely due to yet another great performance by Pat Healy. For every hyped up indie actor, there are always ones that genuinely deserve the praise and buzz that they get, and Healy is definitely one of them. In fact, there isn’t a single weak link in the cast. The most surprising is Ethan Embry’s turn as Vince. Fans expecting to see his character in EMPIRE RECORDS or CAN’T HARDLY WAIT will be shocked. Embry holds his own and does a damn good job as the tough as hell Vince, and though he’s not as endearing as Craig, you find yourself rooting for him as well. It’s a testament to the actors’ performances but also to the script co-written by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga (DEADGIRL, CHOP) and solid as a rock direction from E.L. Katz (THE ABC’s OF DEATH 2).
CHEAP THRILLS isn’t just a good film. It’s a good character study, a funny as hell comedy, and most definitely one of the most well made films that I’ve seen this year, or any year for that matter. If it is any indication of what’s in store from E.L. Katz, then sign me up.