Craig (Pat Healy) is just an average guy trying to support his wife and daughter, but he finds himself struggling financially. With a bare wallet and facing eviction, Craig's day becomes even worse when he finds himself without a job. He meets up with an old high school friend named Vince (Ethan Embry), whom he hasn't seen in five years, to catch up and have a drink amongst friends before facing the difficult road he has ahead. A depressing night quickly shifts into uncertainty when Colin (David Koechner) and his wife Violet (Sara Paxton) invite Craig and Vince to celebrate Violet's birthday with them. Colin begins to offer amounts of money for any task that comes to mind. These dares begin as innocent challenges but slowly evolve into dangerous and life threatening situations with bigger and bigger price tags.
"Cheap Thrills" seems like the type of film that makes an excuse to show the most gruesome and horrific sequences that come to mind and attempts to pass it off as entertainment, but it's actually a very well crafted black comedy thriller that sheds lights on human nature and what one individual will do when he or she faces desperation.
The film is an unexpected surprise from act one, especially when it comes to the level of acting from everyone involved. Besides "Piranha 3DD," this is probably the closest thing to horror David Koechner has ever done in his nearly two decade acting career. While on the surface, Colin (Koechner) just seems to be looking for a good time and a party worthy enough to satisfy his wife's birthday but there's a dark twist to Colin's behavior; a twist that isn't necessarily unforeseeable but is rather ballsy nevertheless. Meanwhile Pat Healy, who is no stranger to the characters he portrays being described as the creepy comedic relief ("The Innkeepers") or smarmy and treacherous ("Compliance"), does a bit of a 180 in "Cheap Thrills." Craig seems to be a guy who had a troubled past, but now focuses on being the husband and father that he needs to be. Scared of what awaits in an incomeless future, Craig sees a way to make ends meet until an opportunity presents himself with Colin's challenges.
Ethan Embry's take on the Vince character is absorbing. Vince is basically the muscle and debt collector for some shady investor (loan shark? drug dealer?). In his own words, he's still one step away from finding himself back in prison. While he makes enough money to support himself, he needs the amount of money Colin is offering to eventually step away. Violet (Sara Paxton) is very withdrawn, but reasonably so. She's the beautiful woman who has already gotten everything she's ever wanted. So what could possibly satisfy her?
When these four actors get together on-screen, something special happens. Conversations between Craig and Vince fluctuate between pure determination, utter desperation, and frightening intensity while Colin is the puppet master pulling the strings with his lovely assistant Violet doing everything she possibly can from behind the curtain.
What makes "Cheap Thrills" so fascinating is its dissection of the human spirit. What lengths would one person go through for expendable income? Would it be any different for a large enough amount of money that could change your lifestyle? Friendships dissolve and morals are thrown out the window. All that matters is walking away with that prize money even if you find yourself doing the most humiliating or disgusting thing imaginable. Greed is certainly a factor, but providing for those you love is absolutely a part of that as well.
"Cheap Thrills" has this dark atmosphere that is undeniably reminiscent of a horrific film like "Saw," but there's more meaning behind "Cheap Thrills." It's about pushing the limits of how ugly human nature can really get when it's taken to its limits. This is more like a deranged version of "Fear Factor" where you get rewarded for disfigurement and bloodshed yet questions how far one individual is willing to go for expendable currency. Preying on the desperate results in molding one's actions into anything anyone desires and in this case it's something sadistically meaningful. "Cheap Thrills" takes pride in being the devil's advocate to human desires and playing its pawns like the sweet antique ivory keys of a piano.