There is an extremely high consciousness of class disparity. A regular topic of conversations both private and public is on the reality of some having an enormous amount of wealth while others have comparatively little. Unemployment is on the rise and the cost of making ends meet is as high as ever. Meanwhile, a societal appetite for entertainment has not diminished in the slightest. A segment of the population finds themselves bored with fiction as they gobble up reality based content, either produced on television or beamed directly onto the internet, in which events are more unpredictable and an often lingering possibility of dire consequences for the real participants is present.
This is the backdrop of the perhaps perfectly timed release of independent film CHEAP THRILLS. It is a tense, focused exploration of a scenario in which the ultra rich, whose extravagant and unchallenged lifestyle leaves no source of titillation except for playing god with others, engage with those near the other end of the spectrum, for whom a job means the difference between providing a home for one’s family or not. The result is a brash, darkly humorous, and riveting tall tale that takes place in a 24 hour span of time with an intensity that rarely lets up.
The protagonist Craig, played by Pat Healy (the infamous caller in Compliance) is a would-be writer working in an auto service shop to support his wife and infant son. Their home is a picture of happiness that is soon disrupted when Craig finds a final eviction on the door of his family’s modest apartment and is later fired from his job. Craig stops by a bar where he happens upon an old friend, Vince, who has headed down a much different path, one which involves flirtations with the wrong side of the law as a regular part of his job. As the two forge an uneasy catching up, they are joined by an atypical couple, Colin (David Koechner) and Violet. Violet is quiet with a model-like beauty. The fedora-wearing Colin has an over the top, carnival barker like quality, with which he flaunts about a large amount of cash and a seemingly infinite generosity.
In the midst of a coke and tequila fueled exchange of pleasantries, the order of business quickly becomes offers of Colin‘s cash in exchange for the performance of juvenile tasks by Craig and Vince: “50 dollars to the first to down this shot of tequila; 200 dollars to whoever can get the girl at the bar to slap him in the face.” The setting changes to the couple‘s exotic home, the acts become increasingly outlandish, and a disturbing power struggle ensues with each participant guided by their needs and relation to one another. Craig’s sudden unemployment and Vince’s feeling of being slighted by yet mentally tougher than Craig factor into the course of things.
Even without the socioeconomic context, the story is crafted skillfully with well-placed reveals about the true nature of some characters, and the past relationship of others. Visual details are also purposefully left out only to pack an extremely potent punch when they are shown. While the dares, or challenges, that are front and center in the story hold a shock value both humorous and repulsive, they are always connected back to the relationship between Craig and Vince. The dynamic between them is more complex than it first appears. These are not static characters, and it is a huge credit to Healy for guiding us through the shifts in Craig’s psyche with such an adept physical performance.
The film ends with a moment of pause worthy and potentially anger inducing imagery. It’s rife with meaning without pointing fingers or explicitly pushing an agenda. CHEAP THRILLS reflects the current social condition by simply telling a great, and yes often times outrageous, story. That’s definitely more than a little thrilling.
CHEAP THRILLS continues its run at Cinema Village in Manhattan and begins its run at Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers on Friday, April 4.
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