Wednesday, June 4, 2014

'Cheap Thrills' (2013) directed by E. L. Katz

 We may want to be luminous beings but we're in the end we're just greedy beasts with simple needs.  To fill these needs; be they food, shelter or the latest fancy piece of consumer electronics requires money; and you're going to have to debase yourself in way or another to get it.  Whether you're biting your tongue and saying "Yes boss" to a bullying superior, giving a dead-eyed rictus smile to a moronic customer or feeling like a piece of shit on a shoe as you just ask for some from someone.  Money makes whores of us all, and it's this simple concept that Cheap Thrills builds on. How far would you go to fill their wallet?

Craig (Pat Healy) is a typical middle-class failure. Beginning with grand designs on being a writer, he realised tapping a keyboard doesn't pay the bills and has been (in his eyes) reduced to blue collar labour as a mechanic.  And now he's even been sacked from that.  Unbeknowst to his beautiful wife and newborn son the overdue bills are stacking up - and pinned to the front door of his crummy flat is an eviction notice.  Setting out to sink his sorrows in a dive bar he runs into Vince (Ethan Embry) an old school friend.  As the two men reminisce and commiserate with each other, they catch the eye of Colin and Violet (David Koechner and Sara Paxton).

Colin is an obnoxious middle-aged bro-type in a ridiculous porkpie hat that marks him out as a tosser the second he sets foot on screen.  Violet is a largely silent blonde beauty with the grace and demeanour of a praying mantis.  The two toss around dollar bills like confetti, casually bribing the barmaid so they can snort coke at their table and ordering tequila by the bottle.  Like moths to the flame Craig and Vince are drawn into their orbit, and a little betting game soon develops; $20 to the first person who'll down their shot. $50 to anyone that can make a woman slap them. $100 if you'll punch that bouncer in the face!  This is the structure of the rest of the film; and as the amounts of cash increase so to do the extreme acts needed to earn it, the characters spiralling haplessly into a bottomless whirlpool of crime, kinky sex and self-mutilation.

Cheap Thrills is a jet black comedy that splits audience sensibilities right down the middle.  One on hand these characters are somewhat sympathic, particularly Craig, who just wants to stop his family being evicted.  Even though he's a bit pathetic it's difficult not to identify with his situation, and part of you hopes he'll just get the hell out of there and leave these sharks behind.  On the other hand, the sadistic side of you wants to see how far this poor bastard will go for a couple of bucks.  As his quivering hand raises a blade to his own flesh we find ourselves silently willing him to gouge away, purely because it'll make for a more interesting movie.

The consequences of these bloodthirsty urges are that the audience finds themselves aligned with the rich couple egging them on.  This is a queasy feeling; these people are obviously evil and yet their humiliation game is amusing us as much as it is them.  That the film can effortlessly create this disjunct between what we'd like to feel and what we actually feel goes some way to raising it above your average gross out gore film.  Cheap Thrills is a movie with a social conscience, one that takes the question of how far desperate people will go for money to its grisly conclusion.

It's most obviously politically aware when it's delineating the class divides between the characters.  Craig obviously considers himself to be a temporarily embarrassed successful person, full of shame for squandering his education and presumed writing talent.  Vince, meanwhile, is more firmly working class.  He's a hedonistic waster, apparently working as a small-time debt collector for loan sharks.  Both can detect that, despite their past friendship, the two are operating in different class spheres, a sensation that causes ever more frictions.

Throwing that into sharp relief is the tasteless extravagance of Colin and Violet.  They're so stratospherically richer than both men that, from his perspective, they're socially identical.  They may as well be two ants bickering on an anthill as far as he's concerned.  What this results in is a microcosmic example of divide and rule, two working class men scrabbling for crumbs while the rich man peers down at them with amusement, totally safe from any repercussions.

Underneath all the blood, screaming and shit, Cheap Thrills is a rather straightforward economic allegory; something that quietly nudges us to remember our basic dignity when it comes to providing for ourselves and our families.  After all, what use is luxury if capitalism has rendered you numb, hollow-eyed and scarred: a shell where a human being used to be?

Katz has created a film that's the best of both worlds; successfully combining a punkish low-budget exploitation aesthetic with some high-falutin' ideas.  At times it's cringeingly disgusting watch, but it's solidly competent film-making with rock-solid performances from the leads.  It's probably not for everyone, but this is a great example of how to infuse low-budget schlock with politics without getting too preachy.  A nice surprise that's on the verge of being a hidden gem.


Cheap Thrills is released June 6th.

American Interior is released 9th May 2013

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

0 Responses to “'Cheap Thrills' (2013) directed by E. L. Katz”

Post a Comment

© All articles copyright LONDON CITY NIGHTS.
Designed by SpicyTricks, modified by LondonCityNights