I caught E.L. Katz's directorial debut Cheap Thrills back in June at this year's SFF, where I thought it easily outshone some other outstanding movies like You're Next and Only God Forgives. If you've seen those two films, directed by Adam Wingard and Nicolas Winding Refn respectively, I'm sure you'll agree that's no mean feat.
Actually, seeing Cheap Thrills and You're Next at the same fest was cool, as Katz's and Wingard's careers have been closely intertwined. Katz wrote Wingard's first two features Home Sick and Pop Skull, as well as all of his early shorts. However, not to take anything away from Wingard, who's work I admire, it seems to me that it may be Katz who ends up being the more assured director of the two.
The plot of Cheap Thrills is simple, but seductive and riveting. Craig is a struggling everyman with a young family and a head full of worries. Facing eviction at home due to unpaid rent, his life completely implodes one day when he goes into work to find out that he's been laid off. Rather than go home and tell his wife that they are going to be on the street with their baby, he hits a bar to drown his sorrows. At the bar he bumps into Vince, an old friend who Craig hasn't seen in years. Vince is down on his luck too, but he's less interested in family and career than carrying on the partying lifestyle that the two friends enjoyed together as younger men.
Sitting on a couch in the back of the bar is a couple, Colin and Violet. Obnoxious and arrogant, they're clearly wasted on coke and fuck knows what else. They are also flaunting their apparently surplus wealth with careless abandon. As the four people become acquainted, Colin starts to play a game with Craig and Vince. What little dares will they perform in the bar for an agreed some of money? Although the demeaning nature of the game is immediately evident to both men, they play along. The money is just too much of a temptation for well-meaning, but desperate Craig. On the other hand, cunning, opportunistic Vince sees the wasted couple as a potentially easy target. The game continues. Escalates. Then Colin invites the two men back to his place...
Although it's pretty obvious what direction the story is heading in, believe me when I say that the events that unfold are unpredictable, disturbing, and pretty sickening. Cheap Thrills is often hilarious, but that humour is mostly a brief, welcome respite from what is otherwise a very tense and uncomfortable experience.
That tension and discomfort is achieved through a whip-smart screenplay, written by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga, and a highly impressive little ensemble cast. The four main performances are uniformly excellent, making it difficult to single one out, but I'll have to hand it to David Koechner. His Colin makes a very complex antagonist, who is by turns sleazy, charismatic, vulnerable and extremely menacing.
This is an important film. It throws into sharp relief some of the most troubling aspects of our current society. The ever widening gap between rich and poor. The increasing popularity of degradation and public humiliation as a form of entertainment.
Honestly, nothing scares me in horror movies anymore, except for us. Humans. All the monsters that we've concocted are little more than tame reflections of tiny facets of our sick selves. Apex predator. Cunning killer. Master manipulator. For all the fictional horror we can think up, nothing compares to the single most deadly entity that we have yet encountered in all our known universe. Ourselves.
Finally, I'd just like to applaud director Katz's decision to end the movie on a powerful note, confirming beyond a doubt that this is subversive filmmaking in the truest spirit of punk. I won't spoil the surprise, but you'll know what I'm talking about when you see it.