Early on in Cheap Thrills, we’re painted a portrait of a man at his most pathetic. Craig (Pat Healy) is facing eviction, has just lost his job, is unable to support his family, and hiding away at a bar when he comes across an old buddy from high school and a couple who keeps giving them money to do embarrassing things. But the bets begin to escalate, and 85 minutes later, we’ve seen some horrifying stuff.
Is Cheap Thrills, like its title suggests, just a series of meaningless, irrelevant events that don’t add up to anything of value? Or is it something more, a dark examination of humanity at its most desperate? The argument could be made for the former, but I’d disagree. Anchored by a darkly funny script and a strong performance by Pat Healy, Cheap Thrills is a violent thriller with something more on its mind than gore (though there’s plenty of that, too).
Healy really is this film’s secret weapon, always believable in his desperation even as the bets become more and more ludicrous. The man has been turning in some great supporting performances in recent years in films like The Innkeepers and Compliance, and Cheap Thrills offers him the chance to get more exposure in a leading role. Healy also helps give more weight to Craig’s relationship with Vince (Ethan Embry), able to convey a strange mixture of weariness at his presence and pleasure in his company. Healy’s Innkeepers co-star Sara Paxton is also great, saying so much without much dialogue, and David Koechner plays on his own image as a troublemaker to create a sinister, compelling character.
And the film’s story escalates in some disturbing ways. There’s a genuine sense that someone involved in the making of Cheap Thrills was legitimately insane, and everything that person wrote made it into the final film. The difficulty of the bets increases like the levels of a Mega Man game, unforgiving in their brutality and shocking on a visceral level. To say what they are would be to give away some of the most perverse pleasures the film has to offer, but rest assured, they are gross.
By the film’s end, it’s hard to believe how far we’ve come and how quickly things got out of hand over the course of its runtime. But the creepiest thing about Cheap Thrills is: it’s believable. This has as much to do with Healy’s performance as anything else, but it’s easy to see a similar situation in the real world playing out in much the same way. Obviously, it’s not likely (people don’t just give money to random strangers for no reason, normally) but the film gets us to empathize with Craig early on. We almost see ourselves in his shoes, so when it all goes to hell, we’re right there with him.
Cheap Thrills is dark, at times sophomoric, incredibly intense, and gleefully insane. Where some films would hold back during the more grisly scenes, this one relishes in them. But the fact that it takes the time to pose some deeper questions about the nature of humanity helps to make Cheap Thrills a more substantial entry in a genre that has always been overstuffed.
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