One of the great benefits of a film festival like SXSW is being able to see movies before you have a chance to pre-visualize them. With Cheap Thrills, I think I popped up a few casting announcements last year but, as far as exposure goes, I hadn’t seen a trailer or any kind of imagery. And that’s exactly how I recommend you go into the movie.
Director E.L. Katz (making one hell of a feature debut), along with writers Trent Haaga (Deadgirl) and David Chirchirillo (the upcoming Dances With Werwolves), has fashioned a film with such a nuanced and inevitable sense of escalation that going in blind is probably the best way to approximate the nightmare that protagonist Pat Healy (The Innkeepers) finds himself stepping into after a long lost best friend (Can’t Hardly Wait‘s Ethan Embry in a heretofore unseen macho mode) and two strangers (Anchorman‘s David Koechner and The Innkeepers‘s Sara Paxton) decide they want to party with him one night.
With all of the action taking place in two primary locations, Katz and company have fashioned an insular and intimate saga of an epically bad night of one-upmanship that perfectly mirrors the stranglehold the 1% of this country have over the 99%. But it’s more than political parable, it’s entertaining, funny, disgusting and ultimately devastating. It never stops to lecture you on any kind of political or sociological talking point, instead it cleverly keeps racking up the stakes with an impressive bit of economy. This is not a film that wastes time condescending to its audience and it wisely sidesteps any heavy-handedness that might have resulted from over explanation. It’s a rarity to see such assuredness and restraint in a film, and the fact that you’re seeing it in the work of a first time director is something of a miracle.
All of the performances are great but I was surprised by Koechner and Paxton in particular. Paxton has traded in the pixie-ish innocence of her past roles to embody the dead-eyed boredom of a trophy wife who is aware that her sense of humanity is flickering out. And Koechner turns in a masterful performance simply by re-calibrating his jovial brand of humor to fit the material. It’s as if Katz saw all of the masculine, slippery chumminess of his earlier work and knew that, dropped into a different context, it could mean something else entirely. Sort of like when Paul Thomas Anderson was able to channel Adam Sandler’s inherent rage into the wounded and disturbed Barry Egan of Punchdrunk Love.
Cheap Thrills is a hugely pleasant, almost out of nowhere surprise (I wasn’t even aware that the film had been finished when it showed up on the SXSW schedule). It’s the rare slow burn that maintains interest by gradually increasing speed rather than simply leaping from 0 to 60 in the final 10 minutes. A great horror satire that would incidentally make a great stage play, this is a 100% can’t miss film for any viewer that wants to be sickened, surprised and impressed.