Cheap Thrills is a single-minded, vicious, misanthropic thriller. Despite the marketing campaign promoting it as a black comedy, there are very few laughs other than a shocked chortle as you watch two men descend into violent desperation. Pat Healy – best known as the neo-Nazi clerk from Ghost World – and Ethan Embry – of Showtime’s Brotherhood – star as Craig and Vince, respectively, who befriend a wealthy connoisseur of human misery (David Koechner) and his wife (Sara Paxton) at a local bar. Their evening together results in one of the fiercest, most depressing and finest movie experiences of the year.
If you are expecting a darkly comedic version of Fear Factor, you are in for a nasty surprise. The underlying emotion of E.L. Katz’s brilliant study of human behavior and greed is anger. Anger at stupidity, anger at destructive competition, anger at an economic system that prides the values the ability to spend over the ability to survive, encapsulated ever so perfectly in Colin (Koechner), a repulsive millionaire with the stereotypical trophy wife who is more sadistic than she lets on. I firmly believe every actor is capable of one great performance, and Koechner has found his in Trent Haaga’s and David Chirchirillo’s screenplay. As Colin, Koechner embodies that aging, ugly rich scumbag trying to retain his youth. Sporting a trendy fedora and button up shirt, Koechner’s usual goofy grin turns savage as he dangles the possibility of financial security (however limited) to two reunited friends.
If all of this sounds pretentious and academic, like a Lions for Lambs for the Occupy movement, I can assure you it’s not. The boldest political statements come from movies that stay true to their genre, and Cheap Thrills, which lives up to its title in the final moments, is a genuine thriller (although tonally, it contains elements of horror). Given Koechner’s involvement, the B-movie title and the hilariously bloody poster that recalls Andrew W.K.’s I Get Wet album cover, I was expecting a quirky comedy in the style of Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America, replete with snarky dialogue and pop culture references. Haaga’s and Chirchirillo’s script is more intelligent than that, however; this is not a movie where audiences get their kicks out of seeing Craig and Vince eat dog crap or fret endlessly over the thought of giving each other blowjobs. Colin starts off playful, offering the first contestant to down a shot, punch a security guard, and defecate in his neighbor’s house a specific sum of money. After all, he has nearly $300,000 to blow on this game. Rather than work together and split the reward, Craig – recently fired and supporting a wife and child – and Vince – a hired thug who broke a debtor’s arm for eighty bucks – get into the competitive spirit by constantly sabotaging one another. It’s all drunken fun and games until they bid each other down from twenty-five to fifteen thousand for the opportunity to chop off a finger.
This weekend, I watched Cheap Thrills back to back with Snowpiercer, another movie about class warfare set in a post-apocalyptic ice age. Directed by Bong Joon-ho (The Host), Snowpiercer takes an angry look at the stark divisions between rich and poor, and how it’s all too easy for immense wealth to abuse the desperate and needy. Snowpiercer and Cheap Thrills are movies for a new generation, not preachy and sanctimonious, but passionate and furious. I haven’t seen much of Pat Healy outside of his small appearances in movies and television, but his performance in Cheap Thrills cements his status as future leading man. And David Koechner – a reliably funny character actor who too often repeats the same goofy performance – is a revelation as Colin. What these actors do in Cheap Thrills is hard to watch at times, but when you’re going for outrage, what more can you expect?