Toronto After Dark 2013: Cheap Thrills – E.L. Katz

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I have to admit, Cheap Thrills was not one of the films I was most looking forward to. I knew the basic plot was about some down-on-his-luck dude who starts doing dares in exchange for cash for the entertainment of a wealthy couple. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that – I mean, either the guy is off his nut to begin with (and seemingly incapable of finding some retail job to cover himself until something better comes along), or he gets forced into the situation a la Jigsaw’s traps of the Saw film franchise. Either way, I wasn’t sure how it would work and still be believable, let alone watchable.  Being gross and disturbing just for the sake of being gross and disturbing is not really my thing.

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Happily, however, things went a little differently from how I pictured them in my mind, and I ended up completely engaged and enjoying the whole film, pretty much right from the start!  We meet Craig (Pat Healy) who, on the day he intends to speak with his employer about a raise so that he can better support his wife and infant child, finds out instead that he is being laid off.  Depressed and at a loss as to what he will do next, Craig stops by a local bar for a drink to clear his head.  There he runs into an old friend, Vince (Ethan Embry), who convinces him to stay for another drink or two so they can catch up.  When Vince learns that Craig is in financial dire straits, he finagles his way into the good graces of a wealthy stranger and his wife, who are seated at a nearby table.  It turns out the couple, Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton) are there celebrating Violet’s birthday, and they’d be thrilled if Craig and Vince would join them for the fun.

The next thing either guy knows, they are vying to see who can be the first to do one silly dare after another, for increasingly ridiculous amounts of cash.  $50 to the first one to do the shot on the table, $100 to slap a stripper’s buttock-ular area, $300 to urinate on your friend’s shoe.  The party continues back at Colin and Violet’s abode, and from there spirals quickly out of control.

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And yet, not really out of control, as everyone makes calculated decisions as to what they will and will not do, which is where it really gets interesting.  The comedy is dark, and refreshingly original, and I found it easy to imagine myself in a similar situation, trying to figure out exactly how far I would go for the amount of cash being offered to me.  The film takes a couple of turns that I maybe should have seen coming, but didn’t, because for once I was staying in the moment and not trying to figure out the next steps that would likely be taken, which is testament to how engaged I was throughout.  The film contains the exact right amount of gore, and leaves as much of the thrill to the viewer’s imagination as to the reactions and facial expressions of the characters on the screen.  The plot races to the kind of conclusion that you almost have to go back and watch again, just to make sure you caught everything that had just been revealed, and you realize that not everything was as straightforward/black and white as it had seemed.  Cheap Thrills shows us that sometimes it’s the green which adds the shades of gray to humankind.

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