Cheap Thrills

David Koechner playing for keeps.


Cheap Thrills
Photo courtesy Drafthouse Films

E.L. Katz's debut feature is a nasty little excursion into the cesspool of human nature that easily lives down to its title. The movie is gross and bloody, but it has a jaunty air. Despite some feints in the direction of social commentary, it's basically a clever genre exercise, and you await each increasingly gruesome plot development with happy anticipation.

Old high-school friends Craig (Pat Healy) and Vince (Ethan Embry) run into each other in a bar. Craig is a failed writer who just got laid off from his job as an auto mechanic and is about to be evicted from the apartment he shares with his wife and infant son. Vince is a surly loner, an ex-con getting by doing strong-arm debt collections. Neither of their lives has turned out the way they'd once hoped.

Soon these two fall in with a couple at a nearby table. Colin (David Koechner) is a jolly loudmouth in a snappy hat; his wife Violet (Sara Paxton) is a dead-eyed blonde with a disconcerting gaze. They're celebrating Violet's birthday, and Colin is flush with cash to finance the evening's fun. Craig and Vince are invited to join the party. "You will never forget this night," Colin tells them, "even if you never see us again."

Colin is into games (and booze and pills and cocaine). He tells Craig and Vince he'll pay $200 to whichever of them will provoke a woman at the bar into slapping him. Vince wins, and is instantly hooked. After the party moves on to a strip club, he scores another two bills for smacking a stripper's butt. When an angry bouncer confronts them, Colin offers Craig $500 to punch him out. Craig does and gets creamed in return. He awakes in Colin's mansion in the Hollywood Hills—the party's final destination.

It's hardly worth the effort to read this picture as a demonstration of the way in which the idle rich get their kicks degrading the lower classes. Its real interest is much simpler: What will Craig and Vince not do to keep extracting money from their sadistic host? Will they do this for $300? How about that for $1200? Nice guy Craig is resistant at first; but when he's offered $4500—a sum that will solve his rent problem—to do something he never imagined himself capable of, he caves. And the games have only just begun.

Most of the actors are familiar from low-budget indies like Compliance and The Innkeepers, and they're solid. Koechner is the biggest name, and he appears to be having a ball deploying a curdled version of the comical bonhomie he's perfected in hits like the Ron Burgundy films. The movie looks a lot better than it needs to, and it's a lot more fun than its grisly specifics might suggest. Come for the carnage, stay for the laughs. And don't get too attached to the little white dog.