Cheap Thrills - DVD Review

'At its centre, Cheap Thrills presents the universal relationship between the haves and the have nots... If this were Ancient Rome, Craig and Vince would be the gladiators battling it out for Emperor Colin's amusement'.

Aesthetically situating itself somewhere between Michael Haneke's Funny Games and the Jackass franchise, Cheap Thrills could easily have devolved into ninety minutes of mindless violence and stupidity. The fact that debuting director E.L. Katz allows this to happen only occasionally may therefore come as a welcome surprise for some; that there is actually something of a social and cultural satire to be found within Cheap Thrills elevates the film's credibility somewhat further.

There are scenes here which feel unnecessarily crude and included solely for the juvenile prank-lovers undoubtedly making up a fair portion of Katz's audience. The sequence in which Craig (Pat Healy) and Vince (Ethan Embry) are challenged by Colin (David Koechner) to take even the score in the most literal way possible with his neighbours for allowing their dog to defecate on his lawn is a particular low - nowhere near as amusing as the director clearly believes it to be and feeling somewhat out of place with the more savage tone much of the rest of his film adopts.

Elsewhere Katz largely gets it right, escalating both the challenges and the monetary payout Colin offers the two men at the right pace to make the ludicrous set-up his film presents feel just believable enough to work. The director is also careful to reveal enough about central character Craig's dire financial situation within the opening ten minutes of the film to ensure that the choices he makes feel grounded within a recognisable foundation of the ends justifying the means and pure desperation. Equally, the fact that we learn very little about Vince and his prior relationship with Craig, and even less about the seemingly endlessly wealthy Colin and his wife Violet (Sara Paxton) gives Cheap Thrills an uneasy edge whilst also emphasising the allegorical nature of the story Katz presents us with.

At its centre, Cheap Thrills presents the universal relationship between the haves and the have nots. Colin throughout the film offers no other reason for paying Craig and Vince to accept his challenges than to entertain Violet for her birthday. If this were Ancient Rome, Craig and Vince would be the gladiators battling it out for Emperor Colin's amusement. The fact that Violet for the most part remains detached from the challenges, spending her time taking pictures of the events on her phone, is a biting satire of the YouTube and reality TV culture still in full swing. Craig and Vince represent those at the other end of society, accepting greater and greater levels of physical and moral degradation in order to take what seems like a short-cut out of their otherwise inescapable desperate lives. Neither man is forced to do any of what Colin asks, nor does either ever consider the greater ramifications of the choices they make, their eyes only on the money being waved in front of them.

In the end, Katz can't quite tie Cheap Thrills together neatly enough to make it a genuinely successful satire. The ending is evidence enough of this, leaving things from one perspective thought-provokingly open-ended, but from another a mess of untied threads. Katz does however mark himself out as a director worth keeping an eye on, wisely opting for an almost play-like structure with a quartet of solid performers, executing his film well on a budget of only $100,000. It may not be quite as tight as it ultimately needs to be, but Cheap Thrills is certainly worthy of your time.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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