After he loses his job, Craig (Pat Healy) goes for a drink before he goes home to face his wife. While at the bar, Craig runs into an old friend, Vince (Ethan Embry) who strikes up conversation with a scheming couple, who decide to pit the men against one another in a dangerous daredevil game.
Cheap Thrills feels incredibly familiar; the idea of pitting people against one another for money in a high stakes game of dares has been touched on many times, not least in Four Rooms and the Tales of the Unexpected story, Man From The South. In Cheap Thrills, however, the dares become increasingly disturbing, meaning the film is not one for the faint hearted.
Pat Healy does fine as Craig, a struggling family man who loses his job. Over the course of the film we see the character become more and more determined and desperate, as the financial situation he is in becomes increasingly clear to him. Ethan Embry seems to go on the opposite journey as Vince; he has no real motivation for wanting money, other than greed, and his bravado soon wears off, leaving him to claim that the bets are unfair. David Koechner plays a character as large as his most famous role – Champ Kind in the Anchorman franchise – but there is an element of sadism wrapped up in his playful persona. Sara Paxton makes Violet a detached woman, who seems to be content in observing destruction from the sidelines.
The story, written by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo is actually rather simple; two men are pitted against one another for money, but it is in the character progression that the greatness of the story lies. We see Craig become increasingly unfeeling, Vince descend into panic and it becomes increasingly clear that Violet has more of a hand in proceedings than one might think at first. The dares become increasingly disturbing, and there are many stomach churning scenes where the ante is well and truly upped. This is not just violence however, it is the knowledge that Vince and Craig are allowing themselves to be destroyed by two rich, bored and sadistic people.
First time director E.L. Katz focuses more on relationships than the grotesque, which in turn allows the grotesque to be seen for what it truly is. The director shows that he is more than capable of allowing characters to shine, and allows tension and power to ebb and flow through the group.
Cheap Thrills is, at times, incredibly disgusting and graphic, but it is also a fascinating study of character and allows the audience to wonder what they would do if they were placed in the same situation. That said, the film is not for those with a weak stomach, as many of the dares are truly sickening.