HIGH-OCTANE LOW-BUDGET ACTION FILM BRINGS THE PAIN
Cheap Thrills delivers exactly what it promises, and then some. First time director E.L. Katz made waves at SXSW last year with Cheap Thrills, to the point where distribution companies entered a bidding war for rights to this film. “I didn’t see it until it premiered, which was actually pretty quick,” star Pat Healy said over the phone. “People are laughing, screaming, gasping – all those things you want them to do. I thought everything was calibrated perfectly in the movie.”
Now that it’s being released to the general public, audiences will have the opportunity to endure this gory thrill ride of a film. The trailer (see above) is hyperactive, violent, depraved and fast-paced and it’s a case of a film trailer actually matching the pace and content of the movie. “It’s a really low-budget film, shot really quickly … in my estimation of things, it seems to have infused the movie with an urgency that might not have been there otherwise,” Healy said. The making of the film was just as intense as the film itself. Shot over about two weeks in the middle of a massive heat wave, the mood on set was filled with tension, says Healy. “When it’s so frantic like that and so quick, mistakes get made, people get hurt, and parts of the film get lost,” he said. “There’s a scene where I do something to myself, and in the aftermath I’m in a great amount of pain. What happened was, I tapped a really deep reservoir of emotion, and everything I’ve ever felt in my life on Earth came out in that moment – we had to get it right, because of art department and props in that scene, there was a lot going on in that moment. As painful as it is doing, it’s cathartic in itself. I felt good, I felt good about myself as an actor. The camera operator thought it was the best work he’d ever done and everyone was on their A-game … and somehow, the card it was on got erased and it was all gone. After a day of not talking to anyone, at the end of the day we shot it again and I was able to shoot it three more times.”
Cheap Thrills steadily escalates in tension and violence without slowing down. “The spirit of the movie took over. There’s no way to do it in that amount of time without living it,” Healy said. The first scene introduces us to Craig, Healy’s character, a nice, average dude with a wife and a new baby. Within the first few minutes of the film we learn that he is in danger of being evicted if he isn’t able to make a payment within seven days and that his wife is oblivious to this fact. That same day, he is let go from the auto repair shop where he works. Now that Craig has been presented as a sympathetic character in a relatable situation, the audience is ready to journey with him into the lowest caverns of human depravity to answer the question: how far will you go for enough money? How much money will it take for you to do anything someone asks you to?
Putting off telling his wife the bad news, Craig kills time at a bar and ends up running into an old friend from high school, Vince, played by Ethan Embry. In turn, Vince and Craig are invited by a wealthy married couple Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton) to join them in celebrating Violet’s birthday. Colin seems to have an endless reservoir of cash, providing expensive tequila, drugs and bribes all in the name of having a good time. He begins to make seemingly innocuous bets with Vince and Craig, daring them to do things like touch a stripper’s ass or try to get a girl at the bar to slap them, in exchange for money. As the night progresses, the dares escalate, and when Vince and Craig end up at Colin and Violet’s trendy bungalow, things really begin to get disturbing.
There are moments that will make you cringe or wince in pain, yet you will be unable to look away. “I think that it’s a really original take on this kind of movie – it could be that it’s like a play, like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but with a very contemporary violence,” Healy said. “And it has undercurrents of our current situation in America – it’s not a stretch to believe this kind of thing could happen. Mostly, I would say that it’s a really smartly written movie that you’re not really sure where it’s going.”
Vince is gregarious but you can feel a ripple of unpredictability and violence just below the surface. Embry did a wonderful job of getting the personality of his character across. He’s a volatile personality that seems to mean well, but becomes apparent that he will serve his own interests above anyone else’s, at the right cost. On the other side of the coin we have Healy’s understated performance as the meek Craig, the “misfit,” quiet, bespectacled and reluctant to get involved with action or trouble until he puts it in terms of his family’s welfare being on the line.
“Ethan Embry and I didn’t get along – we met beforehand and got along fine, I think on set the intensity of the shoot got to us,” Healy said. “He likes to get physical and I don’t. He really likes to hit and be hit and I don’t. That dynamic was created because what you see on the screen is what you get. It works so well for the movie.”
The roughhousing ended up going both ways on set. Healy said that during the shooting of one scene he had his boot over Embry’s face and was supposed to act like he was kicking him, went for it, and ended up giving Embry a black eye. After shooting, Healy said, “Ethan and I were able to sort out our differences.”
Koechner’s character is one of the most entertaining parts of the film, and it would be interesting to see him take on more sinister roles in the future. He hits all the right notes of boorishness, audacity and humour that hide a cunning cruel streak running through the core of his character so that you feel something amiss but it’s difficult to pin down immediately. Paxton’s performance is also enjoyable as the vapid, bored young housewife constantly texting and only minimally engaged in the conversation and activities – until later, when things get really twisted. It would be easy to believe she is just going along with Colin’s big plans for the night, but one conversation she has alone with Craig seems to reveal an obsession with pain, injury and death.
The conclusion of the film is a masterpiece. You feel it heading in a certain direction, and you think you have an idea of what’s going to happen next, but the result is still shocking. “I feel like it’s a movie that’s going to have a long life as a cult movie,” Healy said. “I want it to be huge blockbuster smash hit, but I think and I hope that it’s destined to be a cult classic, if nothing else. I hope people will continue to see and discover it for years to come.”
Catch Cheap Thrills March 9 – 12 at the Rio Theatre (Vancouver). Showtimes: March 9-11, 9 p.m. March 12, 7 p.m. Shows at the Scotiabank Theatre Chinook (Calgary) later in the month as part of the Sinister Cinema series. Showtime: March 27. 7:30 p.m.
By Carly Smith