Savagely assaulting the desperation 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 leading man, 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.
Colin's twisted game -- ostensibly created to entertain his girlfriend Violet (Sara Paxton) for her birthday -- thoroughly illustrates the ugly side of capitalism. Once that's clear, the movie just runs wild, "Jackass" style. At first, Craig's downcast 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 provide the possibilities 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. Humorous antics ensue, one after another, with Colin's orders ranging from the scatological to the sexual and worse -- if you can believe that.
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 at odds with its absurd setup. Since we're provided with little background for Koechner's character, the plot constantly lacks credulity (who would waste this much money?), turning the ongoing wacky behavior 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.
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 for, 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 calls to mind the similar trajectory that turned Walter White into a mad man on "Breaking Bad." In both cases, seemingly well-intentioned people turn evil by way of the opportunities thrust in front of them.
But "Cheap Thrills" also plays like the poor man's Michael Haneke vehicle, resembling his "Funny Games" in its portrayal of lunacy intruding on the stability of bourgeois existence. However, it lacks Haneke's subtleties in every case save for performances. Among them, Healy stands out with a fragile turn that marks his best performance 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.
Still, the movie 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. Ahead of its satiric aims, "Cheap Thrills" ultimately delivers its titular promise again and again.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? One of a few midnight movies at SXSW premiering without distribution, the movie is bound to play well to crowds, though its bizarre premise and lack of A-list star power may hold it back from a bigger life beyond the genre festival circuit. Still, "Cheap Thrills" is well-positioned to find a home a decent-sized genre label able to play up its appeal to that niche market.