Wednesday, March 20, 2013

CHEAP THRILLS (2013) movie review

Cheap Thrills (2013) (1st viewing) d. Katz, E.L. (USA)

Struggling schmoe Pat Healy can’t seem to catch a break. The same day an eviction notice shows up on his crummy apartment’s door, he is let go from his grease monkey job at the local auto lube pit. Oh, and did I mention the crying baby with Amanda Fuller at home? Drowning sorrow in a well-earned glass of brew, he runs into childhood buddy-turned-legbreaker Ethan Embry; while catching up on old times and cursing the new, the mismatched pair is joined by rich mystery couple David Koechner and Sara Paxton. Games of derring do and straight-up foolishness are slyly introduced into the proceedings...with the almighty dollar the stick-end carrot leading the asses to the slaughter.

Working from a superb script co-authored by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo, this is sharp, simple storytelling at its finest, allowing top flight actors full rein to suck out every juicy celluloid morsel. As the ever-escalating game of “I dare you” plays out, alliances ebb and flow as mettle, stamina, ethics and stomachs are tested for the ridiculously affluent’s viewing pleasure. Yet within all this degradation, things are disarmingly, screamingly funny, and it is here that the alchemy is truly achieved. By inexorably reducing Embry and Healy to a travelling two-man geek show, willing to do anything to win the prizes and favor of their hosts, Katz introduces some stinging social commentary without grandstanding, the type that sticks to the ribs and gray matter for days and weeks. What would you do for money? What wouldn’t you do? And how much money are we talking about…?

As our sad sack protagonist, Healy is riveting—agonizing over each denigrating act but swallowing pride and self-respect to free himself from his current debt-ridden station. Embry, a tightly coiled bundle of muscles and fury, allows glimpses of insecurity and need for approval to peek from beneath his tough guy exterior. Paxton, so wonderfully goofy in The Innkeepers, shatters that loveable image, fully inhabiting the quintessential bored young trophy wife inured to all but the most garish freakshows.

And then there is legendary character man Koechner, who starts off playing his time-honored gregarious card—one that has served him faithfully in Hollywood for nearly two decades—and twists it into a monstrous beacon of inhumanity by way of the bank balance. Known primarily for comedic roles, this is a showcase of the highest order and Koechner never misses a beat; at once chummy and terrifying, he’s so good that the fact that he doesn’t run away with the film is a compliment of the highest order to his able castmates.

Following its world premiere at South by Southwest 2013, Thrills was immediately snatched up for distribution by Drafthouse Films and should be making its way to a well-deserved wider audience sooner than later. Katz and his crew go deep and dark into the abyss while we watch from the cliff’s lip, appalled but eternally fascinated. Awful things occur onscreen for our benefit, but never descend into the cartoonish, a testament to the high-wire restraint exhibited by all concerned. Highly recommended.

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine

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