You’ve seen the beginning to this film before — a father, struggling to care for his wife and newborn child, loses his job and faces eviction. Nothing about the exposition is out of the ordinary, except for how quickly it is shoved out of the way to allow for something fresh to take its place.
“Cheap Thrills” centers around Craig (Pat Healy), whose night gets progressively worse after he reunites with his old high school friend Vince (Ethan Embry) in a seedy bar. A brief encounter involving a coke-laden $50 bill floating in toilet water later leads the two friends to become acquainted with wealthy pair Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton). Power plays by Colin and Violet begin early as they offer Craig and Vince hard cash for menial tasks, such as taking a shot or letting a woman slap them. The challenges take a dark turn as the party moves back to Colin’s lavish beachside home, where Craig and Vince begin to discover that this is not a friendly competition.
The contest of depravity put on by Colin and Violet isn’t the most subtle commentary on American society but it is chilling and concrete. Vince, the quintessential high school dropout knee-deep in drugs and women, is pitted against Craig, a college graduate failing to provide for his family. Naturally, the titular sadism is conducted by the absurdly wealthy. See where this is headed? The film asks, what makes these two dejected people different? They are from the same social class and are frequently looked down upon by the rich. To what extent can they be manipulated and shamed before they become content with their admittedly desperate situation? Despite the obvious commentary, the narrative is efficient and lean, managing to ratchet tension steadily over the course of 87 minutes.
Performances across the board deliver well, with the weak link being “Superhero Movie” veteran Sara Paxton in a role that is written as cold but delivered stale. There is an indication of menace in the script that never manifests itself on-screen, instead opting for an Addams Family-style dead stare. The stand-out actor is easily Koechner, who is able to portray the simultaneous playfulness and malice with only a hint of his former “Anchorman” days thrown into the mix. There is more than one scene in “Cheap Thrills” in which Koechner truly stands out, but to spoil them now would be a disservice. This is simply a role that begs to be seen and talked about.
“Cheap Thrills” doesn’t live up to its namesake. The thrills and degeneracy contained within reach far beyond that title, questioning whether it is the rich or the poor who are paying more for their fair share.