While watching Cheap Thrills (2014), I started thinking about the evolution of the American dream. We used to dream about working hard and making money. Then we dreamed about simply winning the money, or stealing it. Now, we dream about meeting a rich guy who will give us money if we do crazy shit for him. Maybe this latest version started with Demi Moore agreeing to sleep with Robert Redford for a million bucks back in the days of Indecent Proposal. Anyway, as I watched a couple of characters eat dogs and engage in all manner of stupefying stunts, I started thinking that either this new dream. Does it mean we’re at least willing to do something for our money? Or that we’ve run out of ideas and see humiliation as no worse than working.
Craig (Pat Healy, one of our underrated actors) starts the film by pursuing the old-fashioned dream, working hard to support his wife and child. But in quick succession, as these things usually happen, he receives an eviction notice and loses his job. While drinking away his sorrows in his local bar, Craig runs into Vince (Ethan Embry), an old skateboarding buddy he hasn’t seen in years. Vince is familiar with the other version of the American dream. He’s a petty crook and has already done some prison time.
Colin (David Koechner), the mysterious rich man who always materializes in this sort of film, invites them to his table for some drinks, and soon has them agreeing to various challenges: ie. slap a waitress on the ass, punch the bouncer in the face, etc. Colin, who is entertaining his slinky, dippy girlfriend (Sara Paxton) on her birthday, is in the mood to throw his money around. It turns out he has a case full of cash put aside just for this night. Since both Craig and Vince are broke, they are willing to do whatever Colin asks. Money is money, right? It doesn’t take long for these challenges to get out of hand. Craig, determined to come away from this night with enough money to prevent his eviction, shows how low he’s willing to go. To Vince’s surprise, Craig is better at groveling for money than anyone in the old neighborhood might’ve anticipated.
The film is being marketed as a horror-comedy, but I think it’s much more than that. There are a couple of laughs in it, sure, and plenty of plot twists, but there’s something deeper going on than just a Saw rehash where characters mutilate themselves. Part of it is Pat Healy’s performance. I’ve enjoyed his work since the first time I saw him as a nerdy bigot in Ghost World, and watched him with jaw-dropping wonder more recently in Compliance. In Cheap Thrills, he puts aside his usual smarmy mannerisms and plays such a broken, pathetic character that I genuinely felt sorry for him. The wild card is Koechner as the millionaire. His throw away lines are funny, he’s unpredictable and dangerous, and I like the fact that we never really know much about him. Why should we?
The film is also a beauty to look at, thanks to the cinematography team of Sebastian Wintero and Andrew Wheeler. The movie feels like it’s suffering a hangover, with harsh light stretched across one’s field of vision. The smart script by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo reminded me of the novels of Thomas Berger (that is, if Berger’s mind had been rotted by a lifetime of watching low budget horrors). Director E.L. Katz, making his first feature, shows a sure-handed feel for suspense and, fortunately, a good sense for letting characters show a human side, even when the goal is to put some blood on the walls.
Is Cheap Thrills a good movie, or just good for a cheap horror movie? Movies that rely on twists and sudden shocks can be entertaining, but are easily forgettable. This one may not be so easily forgotten. And it won’t be the gross stuff that stays with you; it’ll be Healy, scratching his way to the finish line, his face beaten beyond recognition. He’s disgusted with himself, but behaving the only way a man can when the American dream is over and there are no choices left.