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Fantastic Fest review: ‘Cheap Thrills’

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

Raising a family in a bad economy can make for high anxiety and strained relationships. Craig (Pat Healy) works as a mechanic to support his wife Caryn (Laura Covelli) and their baby. Times are tough. Tougher than Caryn realizes. Heading out to work one morning, Craig finds an eviction notice on the front door of their apartment.

Caryn pushes Craig to ask for a promotion at work, but when he shows up that day, he’s met with a pink slip, not a higher salary. He heads to the bar to drown his sorrows and steel himself for the return home to deliver the sobering news. But when he meets an old high school friend, Vince (Ethan Embry), his night takes first a turn toward the debauched, and the wheels start to wobble.

Through their conversation we learn that Craig used to be a writer, but apparently gave up his dreams in a pragmatic move to support his family. Vince, on the other hand, seems to have changed little since their wild youth. He talks about women with the horned-up energy of a teenager and troubles little with responsibility. So he’s more than happy to accept the offer of shots from a stranger named Colin (David Koechner), a gregarious older guy with a beautiful and quiet wife and a penchant for partying. Vince agrees to one drink but wants to head home. Craig and his newfound friend won’t hear it, and once Colin starts betting the guys hundreds of dollars to perform random acts of violence, the course for the night has been set and an unease settles over the proceedings.

Colin convinces the guys to head back to his luxusious house in the hills – a man-child’s wonderland with electric guitars on the walls, a full stocked bar and enough cocaine to stunt Keith Richard. Koechner plays the affable and slightly menacing Colin with an excellent dead-pan humor that muddies his intentions, while Healy lends palpable dread and anxiety to his character who you can tell has his recent firing and pending eviction lingering in the back of his mind.

When Vince notices a safe containing thousands of dollars in Colin’s house, he pressures Craig into robbing the stranger. That plan falls apart in a baffling sequence that heightens both comedy and tension. It also leads to Colin revealing his true intention for wrangling these former friends. The night turns into a series of heinous and bloody bets that bring out the most depraved and greedy sides of Craig and Vince, and the night spirals into violent chaos that carries with it the edgy tingle of dark comedy.

In his feature directorial debut E.L. Katz gives a quick pace to the absurd proceedings, with Koechner playing sort of a traffic cop and Greek chorus for the action. In order to pit the two guys against each other, the script from David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga asks the audience to take as fact an antagonistic and rocky friendship, despite the fact that we never gain a true sense of the Craig and Vince’s former dynamic. But this movie is less about relationships, character development and moral questions about how far we’d go to make money, and more, as the title says, about cheap thrills. Cheap, bloody, disturbingly funny thrills.