Like sweet and sour or chocolate and peanut butter, the combination of devilish fun and unnerving darkness comes together to form something unexpectedly incredible. At times hard to watch and simultaneously impossible to look away from, "Cheap Thrills" is a gem of the film festival season.
In short: two old friends bump into each other at a dive bar (Pat Healy and "Can't Hardly Wait" star Ethan Embry) when they meet a rich couple ("Anchorman" star David Koechner and Sara Paxton). What begins as an evening of fun drinking bets very quickly escalates into a far more sinister game.
Dozens of movies each year claim to disturb or unease audiences, but these movies are typically closer to torture porn than meaningful stories, substituting shock while compromising character and/or narrative.
"Cheap Thrills" is rare in that although it does descend into some very dark, shocking territory, these debasing acts are also meaningful to the characters and always escalate the conflict. This is not "Bumfights" or a series of base degrading acts cobbled loosely together into a narrative: nobody does anything as silly as eating feces or play Russian roulette. Instead, the characters' morals and limits are pushed time and again as the challenges become more intense and the stakes increase exponentially.
Four main characters carry "Cheap Thrills" from almost beginning to end - and despite its relatively short 85-minute running them, this film wastes no time establishing the crisis for Healy and Embry's characters, while slowly revealing the true nature of Koechner and Paxton's motives. On a related note, there's almost no fat on this film- it's a smart, lean story that economically uses every single frame to tell this dark story with very little in the way of b-plot or wasted seconds.
Koechner is fun as a the evening's ringmaster, the guy who simply offers stacks of cash for increasingly malevolent dares. At first glance, Paxton's performance can be mistaken as just a pretty actress sitting around looking pretty - however, she reveals a quiet evil in her eyes as she intently watches the night unfold.
While Koechner and Paxton are key in moving the plot forward in fun/unsettling ways, Healy and Embry's performances are absolutely critical in making this whole situation believable. Any reasonable viewer would demand to know why Healy and Embry's characters continue the betting game even when it takes a dark turn - but the script and this cast make a convincing case for their participation in this sick game.
Final verdict: 'Cheap Thrills' delivers in its promise of unsettling the viewer while surprisingly crafting a narrative which intelligently creates, twists and escalates conflict at every turn.