Friday night is the right night of the week to see Cheap Thrills, a film that takes place over an evening of particularly debaucherous—and seriously weird— partying. Director E.L. Katz’ first feature was one of the most anticipated movies at this year’s Toronto After Dark Film Festival, having previously won the Midnighters Audience Award at South By Southwest and the Director’s Choice Award at the Boston Underground Film Festival. The Toronto After Dark awards haven’t been announced yet, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Cheap Thrills was on the winners list.
After losing his job as a car mechanic, new dad Craig (Pat Healy) stops at a bar for a drink. What was meant to be a solo sorrow soak turns into a high school reunion after he runs into Vince (Ethan Embry, if Preston Meyers had never graduated), an old friend from Craig’s skateboarding days. After a few drinks, the buds run strike up a conversation with high-spending dandy Colin (David Koechner, in a fancy hat), who’s out celebrating his wife Violet’s, like, twenty-third birthday or something. But even though it’s her birthday, Violet is bored. Fortunately, Colin has come up with a virtuoso way to keep her entertained.
Over the course of the night, Colin and Violet engage the guys in a series of escalating contests, awarding cash prizes to the winner of each dare. Things like slapping a stripper’s butt or punching a bouncer gradually escalate until the men are forced to question their own self-worth. As in, the literal price tag they’d put on their bodies, their dignity, and their whole lives.
Although Cheap Thrills certainly goes to some dark places, it never drops its dark-comic undertones; the final shot of the movie is gloriously perverse. The film could almost function as a play, in a good way. With barely a word spoken by anyone other than the main cast members, Katz deftly balances the characters’ various personality archetypes to create an intense four-hander. Minus one pinky.