Thursday, 12 June 2014

The killing: "Cheap Thrills"

Cheap Thrills, a tremendous breakthrough from director E.L. Katz, forms a pointed recession-era update of all those Roald Dahl-ish Tales of the Unexpected the American independent cinema looked to have forgotten about in the wake of the Four Rooms debacle. Of its two men walking into a bar, Craig (Pat Healy) is a husband and father who's just learnt his family is about to be evicted from their condo for non-payment of rent; the other is Vince (Ethan Embry), an old friend with some experience of debt collection. The pair are catching up and drowning their sorrows when they run into a pair of highrollers - middle-aged porkpie hat-wearer Colin (David Koechner) and his young blonde trophy wife Violet (Sara Paxton) - who offer to shout them their next round, on one condition.

The condition - and it is a pivotal one - is that Craig and Vince submit to performing a series of dares for cash rewards. They shruggingly acquiesce, Craig picking up a cool $200 for getting a female patron to slap him, and Vince an even cooler $500 for slapping a stripper's butt in turn. Yet these are just the opening gambits, as much an easy breeze as the opening questions on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? As the stakes are raised, along with the degree of challenge, the question Katz and screenwriters Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo come to ask of their characters (and therefore us) is this: given that we're all scrabbling around for a little extra folding money these days, exactly how low would you be willing to stoop for it?

Craig and Vince's particular predicament is subject to a degree of blackly comic exaggeration, but it's governed by a dynamic very much in play in the wider world. Where Vince rashly decides to try and take his paymasters for all that they're holding out before him, Craig has a wife and child (and dinner) waiting back at home for him - yet he's every bit as desperate for the cash, which sets the two compadres against one another, and possibly sets an even higher value on a night spent off the marital leash. By the time Colin is offering him $4500 to fuck Violet ("Pay your rent, Craig. Take your family off the street"), even the most uxorious of viewers might well have some sense of his conflicted priorities.

Katz elicits exactly the performances he needs to sustain the conceit for a taut 85 minutes: he gets previously unseen notes of glowering resentment out of the once-peppy Embry (Empire Records, That Thing You Do!) and restyles Paxton as the model of spookily callous indifference in a series of cutaways that show Violet storing the night's high-slash-lowlights on her top-of-the-range cameraphone. Healy is never less than credible as a man finding himself increasingly hollowed out by his endeavours - as you'd expect from such a parable of conspicuous consumption, poo and vomit come to feature prominently - and there's a particular pleasure in watching Koechner, that demonic Tom Hanks who became a go-to guy for up-to-11 raucousness once he'd been cast as the Finchy equivalent in the U.S. version of The Office, pulling off something more subtly and insidiously malevolent.

His Colin is the picture of civilised privilege - his penthouse view's a wow, and he boasts of possessing a meat thermometer - yet the dinner party he's laying on will turn every bit as savage as those in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and La Grande Bouffe, and Katz makes a very tasty meal from the sight of two men picking up the knife and carving out their own souls piece by piece. If you don't believe that individuals with time and money on their hands play games of life and death with those they consider beneath them, clearly you missed The Most Dangerous Game, and were sleeping when the minutes of the Bullingdon Club leaked out: Cheap Thrills picks a funny way of illustrating it, but from first image to last, it's hard not to shake the thought that this is how capitalism works.

Cheap Thrills is in selected cinemas nationwide.

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