Money isn't everything, but tell that to someone who doesn't have any. Struggling writer Craig (Pat Healy) has a wife (Amanda Fuller) and baby to take care of and finds out he has been abruptly laid off from his blue-collar day job on the same day an eviction notice is posted on the front door of his crappy apartment. While drinking away his troubles at a bar, he runs into ne'er-do-well high school friend Vince (Ethan Embry) and partying married couple Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton), out celebrating her birthday. When a series of juvenile money dares lead to Craig getting punched out by the owner, he eventually comes to in Colin and Violet's glitzy L.A. home. Looking to keep the buzz going, they continue propositioning the guys in exchange for cash, the stakes raising with each new dare. When Vince drags Craig into a failed robbery attempt, things go downhill fast. With the temptation of thousands of dollars in front of himenough to get him out of his financial hole and bide him some time while he finds another jobCraig makes the decision to stay put for a no-longer-so-harmless game night that will put his very morality to the test.
"Cheap Thrills" is a nasty, misanthropic piece of work that casts a cynical eye on economic strife and would-be domestic bliss. The film flirts with the horror genre in its level of violence and carnage, but fits more comfortably as a jet-black, vaguely satiric but never jokey crime thriller. The key distinction is in the enigmatic Colin and Violet, who use their money as their biggest weapon, manipulating Craig and Vince to turn on each other and relishing in their resulting destruction. The allure of being able to financially live a comfortable existence is powerful, and director E.L. Katz and writers Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo provocatively question the lengths otherwise normal, even-keeled people might go to solve this issueif only temporarily. As potent as this general premise is, it was unfortunately just used a year earlier in 2013's "Would You Rather
," an equally angry, politically loaded effort with stronger cathartic resonance.
As the down-on-his-luck Craig, Pat Healy (2012's "Compliance
") transitions from frustrated husband and father to unhinged wild animal in the span of 87 minutes. Actively identifiable until a particular line is crossed, Craig symbolizes the point-of-view of the audience, carrying them through an ever-darkening tunnel to insanity. In one of his best roles in years, the underappreciated Ethan Embry (2008's "Eagle Eye
") is excellent as the unpredictable Vince, growing ever bitter when his friend starts winning the challenges and earning the cash prizes. The breakdown of Craig and Vince's camaraderie is exceedingly, treacherously believable, and Healy and Embry play this dynamic with riveting voraciousness. Often cast in comic relief parts, David Koechner (2013's "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
") tosses all preconceived notions in the garbage as the upbeat, internally twisted Colin. Without barely lifting a finger against anyone, Koechner manages to pose an intimidating threat. By not divulging what Colin is capable of, the viewer is left firmly on edge. Sara Paxton (2011's "Shark Night
") intriguingly essays a character who flies in the face of usual femme fatales. Emitting an intentionally bored demeanor, Paxton's Violet is a study in apathy and desensitization, seeing others as pawns to use for her own satisfaction. Why she is the way she is is never revealed, director E.L. Katz missing the opportunity to explore the opposite side of the coin: those with too much money to know what to do with.
"Cheap Thrills" leaves a number of shady question marks in its disquieting wake, some better left unexplained and other leading to a culminating feeling that the script is withholding its full abilities and intentions. Unremittingly pessimistic of human nature, the film is enthralling, wince-inducing and purposefully unpleasant. It is also skillfully directed and edited, predominately taking place in one interior location without once slipping into staginess. The final shot is like a malicious punch to the gut without the typical catharsis of deserved comeuppances provided. Consequences, however, are of less concern, the movie evoking a series of "what ifs?" but no "what nows?" Having been through so much and done what he has chosen to do, Craig's return to his old life is but an empty formality for a man who will never be the same.