Cheap Thrills is a 2013 indie feature that marked the directorial debut of screenwriter-producer E.L. Katz. Written by Trent Haaga (Deadgirl, 2008) and David Chirchirillo (ABCs of Death 2, segment “A is for Amateur,” 2014), it depicts the monstrous transformation of protagonist Craig Daniels (Pat Healy, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Drew Carey) and his high-school buddy Vince (Ethan Embry) under the influence of a 1%er couple, Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton).
Craig is a college-educated, failed writer who supports his family by working as an auto mechanic. In short order after the film’s opening, he receives an eviction notice from his landlord and loses his job. To calm his anxious desperation, Craig goes to a local dive bar where he runs into — or rather is playfully assaulted by — Vince, who explains that he works as a strong-arm debt collector for shady clients.
After the two catch up on the five years since they last saw each other, Colin and Violet invite them to their table. Explaining that he and Violet are celebrating her birthday, Colin also makes it clear that he has a lot of money to spend. As the quartet does tequila shots, Colin begins a series of dares which pit Craig and Vince against each other in competition. Violet participates — at first — only as a photographer who documents Craig and Vince’s antics.
The more domesticated of the two friends, Craig is reluctant at first to participate. On the other hand, Vince is more than up for a challenge, especially because Colin’s cash prizes for the winner grow larger with each dare. Reminded of his need for money, Craig joins in with increasing enthusiasm, ultimately getting himself knocked out by the bouncer after responding to a dare from Colin as the four leave the bar to go to Colin and Violet’s expensively outfitted house, where they continue the party in private.
The latter turn occurs after Vince (with Craig as a reluctant accomplice) stages a poorly-executed attempt to rob Colin and Violet. Colin’s surprising response to this betrayal doesn’t tip off the two money-hungry young men, both of whom are blinded by their need for cash. Even though Craig leaves after he ‘wins’ enough money to pay his rent, he returns after he realizes that he has staved off his financial problems for only a week.
Just as Craig and Vince never realize the extent to which Colin and Violet are exploiting their poverty, the audience might not catch the clear critique embedded within the film. Cheap Thrills‘ intense focus on the fascinatingly grotesque interactions of four well-drawn characters — well-played by its principal actors — and its well-timed doses of shocking visuals tend to distract from its message. While the viewer can guess where the film is going, how it goes there and why are not so easily predictable.
Yet the title of the movie is a clear tip-off. Colin’s dares are merely an upscale, ‘reputable’ version of the “Bumfights” videos. The wealthy (represented by Colin and Violet) get their “cheap thrills” by humiliating the poor through increasingly demeaning tasks made ‘acceptable’ by the cash that they yield. On their part, the poor are complicit in their own exploitation through their acceptance of money as the be-all and end-all of existence. The question of the film is what will Craig and Vince not do for a buck.
But there’s more. The film also focuses on the relationship between Craig and Vince, whose consciousness of their divergent paths after high school (and the differences these choices imply) leads to an open rivalry between them. While it involves typical high school stereotypes, this conflict highlights the split between the middle class (in Craig’s case, as defined by college education, writerly ambitions, and conventional family-oriented values) and an underclass (in Vince’s case, as defined by dropping out of high school and working in an essentially criminal line of work). Yet they’re more alike than they realize. But the most criminal of all are Colin and Violet, who are nevertheless shielded by the privilege of their wealth.
Since Cheap Thrills‘ characters are white and straight (patriarchally and homophobically so), its critique is aimed squarely at the dominant majority in America. What makes this movie more than worth a watch is that it is not at all preachy. It delivers its ideological wallop with a dose of entertainingly funny, dark, and horrific fun. It’s currently streaming on Netflix for those with a taste for the edgy.