E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills is a very effective piece of body horror, teasing in its attempts to keep the audience guessing, but the cruel irresistibility of its premise wears itself out before the film’s final minutes. Pat Healy stars as Craig, a failed writer dismissed from his automechanic day job the same day he receives a threat-of-eviction notice. Inconsolable at the thought of coming home to his wife and baby son, he stops off at a bar and runs into Vince (Ethan Embry), an old friend from high school. One drink becomes several, and soon the duo are hanging out with Colin (David Koechner) and his practically mute wife, Violet (Sara Paxton)—a pair of ludicrously wealthy party animals having a bored night on the town for Violet’s birthday. Craig’s first encounter with Colin—wherein the older man accidentally drops a $100 bill in a urinal and Craig decides, grimly, to fish it out—establishes the core dilemma the drives the plot: When the chips are down, how far will you debase yourself if you need the money?
Soon Colin and Violet are egging both Craig and Vince on—usually in competition against one another—to meet a variety of dares for cash, a game of brinkmanship that only escalates as the party moves back to Colin’s mansion in Hollywood. To Katz’s credit, Craig and Vince aren’t hostages; they’re there because they want to win from Colin’s apparently endless supply of money. Their willingness to participate quickly jumps from bemused curiosity to vicious despair, and both Embry and Healy are terrific at portraying many contradictory emotional impulses in tight, confined moments. Koechner—cast, unusually, to provide something other than dialed-in comic relief—has a ball with his role, wrapping his increasingly sinister propositions in a dudebro amicability. The film works because Colin’s motivations are never clarified one way or the other.
That said, by the time Craig has agreed to chop his pinkie off for $20,000, Cheap Thrills has exhausted all possible themes for the sake of endurance-testing both its characters and audience. Katz’s screenplay grows more and more torn between solemnity and satire; the class issues between Craig and Vince that emerge—indeed, the reasons they drifted apart back in the day—feel pat and underexplored, less character details than Polanski-lite screws put on the characters to drive up tension. The film’s clearest winner is Healy, whose depiction of a man willing to corrode his entire life to provide for his wife and kid feels true despite the script’s silliest moments. It’s a disproportionately sincere, lived-in performance for a movie that asks its audience to stare agog at horrific mutilation one moment, and turn around chuckling at it the next.