Fantastic Fest: ‘Cheap Thrills’ Lives Up to Its Name

By  · Published on September 23rd, 2013

Editor’s note: Our review of Cheap Thrills originally ran during this year’s SXSW Film Festival, but we’re re-running it here as the film plays Fantastic Fest.

Hey, did you guys know the economy sucks? It’s pretty evident from the price of gas to the unemployment rate to the housing market that we’re still not out of the woods yet. So it’s the perfect climate for a movie critiquing how money rules all and offers peace and stability to those who desperately crave it.

Cheap Thrills is both thriller and dark comedy at the same time. The lead character is Craig (Pat Healy), a regular guy doing his best to provide for his wife and small child, but his best isn’t good enough, and with an eviction looming he loses his job at a mechanic shop. Hurting from being kicked while he’s down, he heads to the nearest bar to drown his sorrows. He runs into Vince (Ethan Embry), an old friend he hasn’t seen in awhile, and the two are drawn into a conversation with Colin (David Koechner) and his wife Violet (Sara Paxton) who are celebrating and throwing money around the shithole dive bar. But it’s when Craig and Vince head back to the couple’s house that the stakes go way up and the money really starts flowing… as long as Craig and Vince are willing to play along.

Colin and Violet are rich and bored. So they’ve decided to find two people and pit them against each other to see how far they’ll go for money. Will you punch that guy in the face for $50? How about for $100? Or a $1,000? These are the types of scenarios that are peppered throughout Cheap Thrills, escalating to bigger and badder ideas.

It might not be a textbook example of Economics 101, but the ideas put forth in the film could almost be used to teach students some very basic elements of the very complicated subject.

The four leads are all fabulous. Healy is always great, but it’s Embry and Koechner who both play against type and really steal the show. Paxton is fine, but her role basically calls for her to be half-comatose for most of the runtime, leaving it a solid but unremarkable performance. Embry and Koechner are the real story here with the former playing the hard-ass and the latter actually acting instead of simply cracking jokes every 5 minutes. Healy’s work shouldn’t be downplayed though as he’s fantastic as the focus of the story.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that it feels like it’s building to something bigger and different than the endings to similar stories. Ultimately it goes right where you think it’s going, which isn’t a huge complaint but does feel just a tad disappointing. Luckily the last shot is fantastic and makes up for any disappointment to be had from the film not really having the twist it felt like it was hinting at.

Ultimately, Cheap Thrills is another film that should provoke some fascinating discussions about class, economy and the state of both in our country right now. It’s anchored by strong acting, and it’s a fun and funny watch at times despite a fairly dark premise. It’s a gritty, brutal film that’s much smarter than it may look at first glance.

The Upside: Great performances; a timely plot and a stellar last shot

The Downside: Feels like it’s building to something bigger which makes the conclusion fall just a little flat; Paxton’s character isn’t given much to do

On the Side: Producer Travis Stevens also produced Big Ass Spider! giving him 2 films in the genre festival circuit this year.