by Walter Chaw A lean, mean, pleasantly unpleasant little clockwork from first-time director E.L. Katz, Cheap Thrills feels and acts like the best kind of noir--the kind where you don't like anyone very much. Reuniting Pat Healy and Sara Paxton from The Innkeepers (another movie that disproves the maxim that genre film is in trouble), this is a fairly stunning, if a bit on the nose, parable of our recessionary state, as car mechanic/aspiring writer Craig (Healy) is faced with the eviction of his young family from their tiny apartment and a layoff from his already-not-paying-enough job. Drinking his sorrows away at a bar, he runs into an old buddy, Vince (a fantastic Ethan Embry), and an odd couple, Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Paxton), celebrating Violet's birthday. Mysteriously wealthy, it seems that Colin is looking to solve the puzzle of what to get the impossibly pretty younger wife who has everything, and the answer is to stage a series of increasingly sadistic stunts between Craig and Vince for various bounties. $200 for saying something to the meth-addict at the bar to make her slap you; $500 if you hit the strip-club bouncer first. The stakes escalate, tensions rise, and it all ends with probably the single best expression of the current state of manhood in the lower-middle-class United States circa 2013.
In between, Katz keeps everything lively, jumpy, hilarious, moving the action from standard fraternity pranks into stunts that begin to hint at a more nefarious endgame. The ensemble deserves special mention, with Koechner, best known as one of Ron Burgundy's buddies, offering depth in key moments: when his Craig declines to do something because it's "too gross," for instance, or when he shows genuine empathy at the exact moment we're sure he's incapable of it. Paxton, who tends to be lost in films where she's actually quite good because she's too small, too cute, gives in Cheap Thrills a performance that, at the end, lingers as the most understated and for that moment when she looks at a cutting board with something like hunger, maybe arousal. She's a lovely fatale in a film where everyone takes a turn as a fatale; too easy to say there are heroes and villains, closer to the truth to say the picture takes time to paint everyone with the same grey ambiguity. (From just a character standpoint, it most resembles The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) While Cheap Thrills is obviously about the lengths to which a man will go to provide for his family, there's a sneaky sophistication to its approach. It's about the way that pride, the masculine desire to feel successful whatever the cost, is the real killer. And it's not so much about ambition as it is about self-worth, and the way the movie draws a distinction between the two is where it finds its resonance.
Defined by its intelligence and marked by a willingness to be completely uncompromising, Cheap Thrills is also hilarious, gleefully, childishly disgusting, and consistently relevant. It reminds of the Wachowskis' Bound in its cleverness, but doesn't betray any looming pretension. It feels honest in its outrage at the gulf between the haves and have-nots, finding time, even, to direct a few lines at education, aspiration, and futility. It's a class struggle, an honorable updating of Polanski's Cul-de-sac, a showcase for Katz and everyone in the cast and crew. I love how it doesn't romanticize what it takes to provide--the indignity of eating corporate shit sandwiches for a living wage. It suggests that there's real ugliness in the compromises individuals make for the sake of love and duty. I was reminded of Fassbinder's statement about love after watching Douglas Sirk's films for the first time: that "love seems to me even more to be the best, most sneaky and effective instrument of social oppression." Craig does things for what he says is love, yet so does Colin--and at the end of all the madness, the picture suggests two portraits of domestic tranquility, both greased by fiscal exchange. Cheap Thrills is a slippery fish, and it leaves a mark.