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‘Cheap Thrills’ fails to capitalize on its gruesome social commentary

‘Cheap Thrills’ fails to capitalize on its gruesome social commentary


Cheap Thrills
Written by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo
Directed by EL Katz
USA, 2013

How much credit does rudimentary social commentary buy a film? You may find yourself pondering that question if you can distract yourself from the barrage of indignities that not only frequent but make up the constituent parts of the latter half of Cheap Thrills, a social satire by-way-of cruel lark that makes a case against the way capitalism ferrets out and rewards our worst impulses, and does so in the crudest, most straightforward fashion imaginable.

Craig (Pat Healy) is having a bad day. He’s just been laid off from his job as a car mechanic, his apartment is about to be seized due to non-payment, and he has a newborn baby to provide for. Depressed and looking only for a moment’s self-pity, he heads to a local watering hole, where he runs into an old friend, Vince (Ethan Embry), whose situation is not as dire, but after years of shady loan-shark jobs, is certainly eager for less desperate work. Before long, they meet Colin and Violet (David Koechner and Sara Paxton), who seem remarkably flush with cash, and are eager to spend it. They challenge Vince and Craig in a series of gradually escalating competitive dares, each with a cash reward. Before too long, however, the stakes (and the gruesomeness) escalate beyond their imagination.

Cheap Thrills, intentionally or otherwise, winds up feeling somewhat akin to an extreme genre-film take on American class war, in the same sense that A Serbian Film tackled the legacy of genocide. Unfortunately, while it’s always refreshing to encounter new films that take on social ills of any kind, especially in so brazen a fashion, the screenplay is too broadly drawn to make more than the most obvious statement. Craig and Vince’s divergent backgrounds – Craig got a degree and tried to make it as a writer, Vince dropped out and took whatever work he could to maintain a hard-partying lifestyle – serve functional and thematic purpose but don’t seem to inform the characters in any meaningful way.

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The antagonists are problematic, as well. Colin and Violet aren’t people, they’re simply incarnations of predatory capitalism, alternately cackling and fetching. So when the dares get truly unpleasant, and ultimately reach a logical apex, it’s difficult to feel sympathy for the working-class combatants, so easily manipulated by forces that are so openly callous and uncaring. That means, on an essential level, Cheap Thrills‘ commentary has missed the mark: Colin and Violet might seem awful, but they pale in comparison to the real free market.

— Simon Howell