Just as this year’s SXSW is wrapping up, one of the best films from last year’s festival is finally hitting theaters: “Cheap Thrills,” a film whose relentless, wicked sense of humor won it the Audience Award at last year’s festival. “Cheap Thrills” brings a pitch-black perspective to its story of desperate men coerced to do terrible things for cold, hard cash, and thankfully, time hasn’t made the film any less viscerally horrifying or hilarious.
The film opens with Craig (Pat Healy) getting a cavalcade of bad news, getting fired just as he learns that he and his family are being evicted from their apartment. Attempting to drown his sorrows in a bar, he runs into old friend Vince (Ethan Embry). As the two catch up, they draw the attention of Violet (Sarah Paxton) and Colin (David Koechner), a couple having a night on the town, which starts to spin out of control Colin starts offering them cash in order to perform depraved acts, ranging from punching the bouncer at a strip club to much, much more nefarious deeds.
With some creative staging, “Cheap Thrills” could almost be a play, as it has only a handful of speaking roles and takes place mostly in Colin’s extravagant home. Thankfully, the small cast is full of impressive performers bouncing off each other dynamically. Healy has played some despicable characters before (notably in 2011’s “Compliance”), yet he’s effortlessly able to paint Craig as a sympathetic figure. Healy’s got a broken-down charm that makes Craig’s descent feel painful yet earned, but he truly shines in the back half of the film, playing Katz’s demented comedy with perfectly measured desperation and anger. Embry displays a little less range in his role, but he’s very effective as the high school friend that everyone’s glad to outgrow, and brings an acidic hunger to the role.
Perhaps the most surprising performance of the bunch is David Koechner’s turn as Colin. Koecher’s always had a dark streak that informs the sleaziness of his work, but he tears into Colin with an eagerness and depraved joy that makes the viewer’s skin crawl. Koechner presents even the most horrific challenges with an enthusiastic, matter-of-fact delivery that gives the film some of its biggest laughs. As his co-puppet master, Sara Paxton is a demure little viper, projecting a vapid personality that covers up a chilling viciousness, communicated with a few graceful notes in her performance.
“Cheap Thrills” is impeccably structured, with Colin and Violet’s challenges lending the film a clean, organic escalation. The script from David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga makes each “dare” its own mini-set piece, and one scene in particular, where Craig attempts to work up the nerve to cut off his pinky finger for a few months’ rent, is grotesquely comedic and beautifully orchestrated. While the film’s plot won’t be winning any awards for originality or unpredictability, there are a few brilliantly timed reveals and smart observations sprinkled in.
For a film from a first-time director, “Cheap Thrills” is aesthetically accomplished, bathing the characters in neon glows that embody the seediness of their activities. The film’s got an admirable tonal control, always searching for the next dark joke until it decides to get deadly bleak and serious, and its final shot is one for the ages, a perfect encapsulation of everything the film’s trying to say in one stark image.
“Cheap Thrills” is an assured work, a dark comedy with a gleefully acidic heart that never fails to milk every cringe-worthy moment for every laugh and grimace. Boasting impressive performances from its central quartet and a plot that makes some of the most demented imagery in recent memory feel natural to the story, “Cheap Thrills” is easily the best film opening in Austin this weekend.
Movie: "Cheap Thrills"
Director: E.L. Katz
Runtime: 88 minutes