Savagely assaulting the desperate state of a blue collar family man, the comedic thriller "Cheap Thrills" establishes a ridiculous premise early on and takes it to various extremes, again and again, until you just have to accept the crazy venture on its own terms or simply give up. That's also the situation for its dazed anti-hero, Craig (Pat Healy), a broke father newly unemployed when he comes across the affluent Colin (David Koechner) in a bar and plays along with a series of increasingly deranged bets in exchange for monetary rewards. The metaphoric weight to the scenario is immediately evident, but "Cheap Thrills" basically uses that starting point to mess around. It asks, "How far would you go?" and then goes there.
Colin's twisted game -- ostensibly created to entertain his girlfriend Violet (Sara Paxton) for her birthday -- certainly goes great lengths to illustrate the ugly side of capitalism. Once that's clear, the movie just runs wild, "Jackass" style. At first, Craig's downbeat state leads him to call up old high school buddy Vince (Ethan Embry), in the hopes that the shady hustler might be able to help him out. Tough guy Vince shows potential, but even he can't match the financial rewards that suddenly present themselves to both men.
When Colin spots them at the bar and offers $50 to the first one able to take a shot, a new game takes shape, and the stakes keep rising. Taking on a bar fight for $500, the amusingly puny Craig gets himself knocked out, only to awaken at Colin's posh L.A. mansion, where the wicked games continue. More humorous antics ensue, one after another, with Colin's orders ranging from the scatological to the sexual and worse. Yes, worse.
The whole thing could take the form of a sick game show -- who will fold first? -- if first-time director E.L. Katz (working from a script by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga) didn't downplay the farcical ingredients. Elegantly shot by Andrew Wheeler and Sebastian Winterø, "Cheap Thrills" has the look of a high-minded noir — a notably mature feel that's at odds with the absurd setup. Since we're provided with little background for Koechner's character, the plot strains credibility more than once, turning the ongoing wackiness into something of an obvious provocation. By the time Colin reveals his full intentions of handing over a mountain of cash to the participant who makes it through the night, the strengths and weaknesses of "Cheap Thrills" have both been laid bare.
Yet the movie challenges viewers to keep watching as Colin's demands get weird, kinky and gross; meanwhile, the wimpy Craig contends with a sad reputation that Vince constantly hounds him about, claiming that Craig's lack of self-esteem stretches back to their teenage days. Aiming to win each demented task for the sake of his family, Colin is also driven by a crazed hubris that suggests a sped-up version of the Mr. Chips-to-Scarface trajectory plaguing Walter White on "Breaking Bad." In both cases, seemingly well-intentioned people transform into irrevocably evil personas by way of the opportunities thrust in front of them.
But "Cheap Thrills" also plays like the poor man's Michael Haneke, resembling his "Funny Games" for its vision of lunacy protruding from the extremes of high class living. Needless to say, it lacks Haneke's subtle touches — in every case save for the performances. Healy stands out for his fragile turn, his best (and most distinctive) since "Great World of Sound," where he played a similarly disillusioned married guy in vain search of an income. Embry is decently sleazy in a supporting role that asks less of him, and Paxton mainly just looks eerily dazed. Only Koechner is a true weak link, coming across as a little too goofy for the ominous qualities the part asks of him. But as a walking metaphor, he does the trick.
The movie ultimately succeeds at conveying shades of ambiguity among the intentions of its participants. Even when it's fairly obvious where things are headed, the sick ride continues to speed forward, arriving at a gloriously absurd final shot that perfectly encapsulates both the ideas and visceral experience of the movie in their entirety. Along with its satiric aims, "Cheap Thrills" delivers its titular promise again and again.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Snatched up by Drafthouse Films after its SXSW Film Festival premiere last year, the movie opens in limited release this Friday. Solid word of mouth and support from the genre film community may help it find respectable if not outstanding returns, although it's especially well-positioned to reach cult status on VOD.
A version of this review was previously published during the 2013 SXSW Film Festival. Indiewire's Eric Kohn will moderate a conversation this evening at 6 p.m. at the Soho Apple Store with "Cheap Thrills" star Pat Healy. Go here to reserve tickets to the event.