Foolish Games: Katz’s Debut Collapses Under Excessive Shock Value
There’s certainly a palpable amount of perverse thrill checkered throughout E.L. Katz’s directorial debut, Cheap Thrills, which hovers somewhere in that realm of self-reflexive commentary on the consumption of violence and psychosexual antics occupied by fare like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997/2007) and Curtis Harrington’s Games (1967). But whatever it happens to put you in mind of, Katz, along with screenwriters David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga, are only able to deliver what the title promises, a cheap, quick thrill ride that may be entertaining and even vicious, but without any kind of real payoff. In the dichotomy of the haves and have-nots, money may be the catalyzing root of all evil, but that doesn’t make depictions of it innately memorable.
Craig (Pat Healy), an aspiring writer and happily married father, is about to have a really bad day. Tearing an eviction notice off the door as he leaves for work, he’s promptly laid off at his blue collar job due to downsizing. At a loss of what to do next, he calls his wife to say he’s going out for a drink after work and visits a bar. Unexpectedly, he runs into an old high school friend, Vince (Ethan Embry), still living on the fray, it seems, a day at a time. As they two commiserate over booze, they run into a tacky couple, Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton), who insist on making it known to the world that they have loads of money to waste. Amidst blowing lines of coke off the tabletops, Colin begins pitting Vince and Craig against each other in a series of dares, offering money to the winner. The dares gets more extravagant, and soon all four head off for Colin and Violet’s pad, where it is revealed they have thousands of dollars just lying about in unlocked boxes. When Vince’s ill-conceived idea to rob them goes awry, Colin seems even more insistent on making the two strangers stay and try to earn the money they wanted to steal. As the night wears on, things get kind of ugly.
Set almost entirely within two cramped settings, the entertaining quartet of performers makes Cheap Thrills an engaging exercise to sit through, though even its most labored gross-out factors may hardly register for those saturated with today’s glut of torture porn predecessors, the audience whom Katz seems to be targeting.
Pat Healy, star of Craig Zobel’s Compliance (2012), gets protagonist duties here, and he’s effective as a down and out victim of circumstance (he also starred with Paxton in Ti West’s The Innkeepers, the castmate who gets the fuzzy end of the stick as a blonde bombshell here, on hand for a handful of perversities and little else). Ethan Embry, who also pops up briefly this year in The Guest, reminds us of his potential, but it’s Koechner who actually gets to revel in an actual performance, an actor generally cast in supporting roles written for cheap and easy laughs. While he’s penned a couple Adam Wingard features, Katz does seem an adept director in his own regard as well, it’s just that Cheap Thrills may have been enhanced by the concept of less is more.
A mid-way sequence involving Paxton’s insistent seduction of Healy hits the perfect balance of tawdry delight and uncomfortable tension, but as we pick up the pace to the climax, nothing seems to hit that same peak. Between defecation, cannibalism, weird sex and the specter of homicide, there’s a lot going on in Cheap Thrills, yet somehow, it’s just not as effective as we’d like it to be.