The main reason to see Cheap Thrills is Pat Healy, a talented actor whose name you may not know but whom you’ll probably recognize from appearances in movies like Rescue Dawn and Great World of Sound, and TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Six Feet Under. Sometimes he’s just playing bit parts, but you know this face: Pursed lip, tightly wound jaw, eyes that seem alternately tense and inquisitive. It’s the type of face that gets you cast in “character roles,” but it has an inner life worthy of a lead — especially for a lead in a thriller like Cheap Thrills, in which you spend a lot of time wondering just where the hell the story is going.
Directed by E.L. Katz, Cheap Thrills opens on Craig (Healy) waking up in the small Los Angeles apartment he shares with his wife and baby, getting ready for work, stepping out the door, and seeing an impending eviction notice. Then he makes his way to his auto-mechanic job, where he promptly gets laid off. Next thing we know, he’s having a drink at a bar with an old high-school friend, Vince (Ethan Embry), and relating his money woes to him. The two of them spark the interest of an odd rich couple in the corner, garrulous Colin (David Koechner) and quiet, beautiful Violet (Sara Paxton). Seemingly as a lark, Colin and Violet start to dare Craig and Vince to do certain things in exchange for money – go to that cute girl across the room, for example, and get her to slap you. Gradually, the party heads back to Colin and Violet’s home, and there the dares become increasingly more twisted and gruesome.
It’s not exactly a new concept, and it’s not exactly done in a new way here. Some may be reminded of “The Most Dangerous Game,” but a more apt source is probably the oft-filmed Roald Dahl story “Man From the South” (which the film consciously references during one particularly grotesque pinky-slicing scene). Dahl’s story itself became a famous Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode and also inspired Quentin Tarantino and Park Chan-wook’s contributions to Four Rooms and Three: Extremes. But there’s a reason that story only ever seems to work at a shorter length – it’s a surreal, cosmic joke, not something on which to hang a full narrative.
And so, Cheap Thrills sometimes feels like a pointless cascade of cruelties. It does make occasional stabs at class critique, about how the wealthy can easily string along and destroy those more financially desperate, but the story is so bizarre that it carries little universality; you never sense that these characters might stand for anything broader than themselves. To be honest, this is more appropriately the realm of torture porn. (A less polished indie horror film from last year, Would You Rather, took the premise of people competing to do horrible things to each other in a more obvious direction; that film didn’t quite work either, but at least it carried the conviction of genre.)
But if Cheap Thrills ultimately does carry us along, it’s due largely to Healy’s performance and presence. He’s a figure halfway between schlemiel and criminal, and the film effectively works that full range. From his early carefree moments with his wife to his later scenes of glum desperation, eventually giving way to the sick beast beneath, the actor makes us care for a man trapped in a very contrived world. For the film itself, that is both a blessing and a curse: We can’t tear ourselves away from what’s happening onscreen, even as our bullshit detectors go off left and right.