Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. One of the biggest surprises of SXSW 2013 was E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills, a dark examination of “the line.” You know what I’m talking about. Everybody has their limits, a line that they will not cross no matter what the situation… but where that line sits depends on all sorts of factors.
For instance, if you told me to go outside and pick up a fresh dog turd off my lawn and squish it into a dog turd patty with my bare hands I’d tell you to fuck right the hell off. If you offered me $20 to do it, I’d say no way. If you offered me $100, I’d consider it… and then be all, “That’s just silly.” If you offered me $1,000 cash then I’d deliver to you a piping hot dog turd patty and then I’d promptly scrub my hands MacBeth style for a few hours, grinning the grin of a man that’s a thousand dollars richer than he was 5 minutes ago.
Finding out where that line is and what circumstances could cause that line to move is a fun game, one that is played a whole lot in my circle of friends and that shit goes into some weird, dark places. I won’t tell you exactly how awful we get, but I will say that the phrase “Baby don’t know, baby just wants something in its mouth” was actually uttered during one of these conversations and caused about 20 minutes of straight laughter and an in-joke that will last for decades to come.
If that happens in conversation with fairly sane and regular people like us can you imagine the places a film about exploring that line can go? Well, there’s no need to imagine because Mr. Katz made that film and it’s fuckin’ great.
I caught the movie after its first, much buzzed about, screening and after the announcement that Drafthouse Films picked it up. There’s a danger to going into these small movies you see at film festivals after they acquire a ton of buzz. A lot of times that buzz sets expectations too high. That happens for big studio tentpoles as well, but there’s a special kind of sad you get when you have to tell all your friends they were wrong and got overexcited for nothing (I’m looking at you friends who fawned over Bellflower).
The Drafthouse folks pick up really interesting films, from the Academy Award nominated Bullhead to bizarre and graphic foreign comedies like Klovn and Four Lions. Cheap Thrills not only fits with the company, it stands the biggest chance of becoming a runaway hit for them.
Cheap Thrills isn’t just a film fest movie, a niche cult classic type film. There’s real deal great dramatic work going on here and the extremes the movie goes to somehow doesn’t come across as impenetrably dark. It’s not A Serbian Film. Cheap Thrills crosses that line we talked about earlier a few times, but it’s not the kind of movie you feel like you have to take a shower after watching it, thanks largely to the likable performances of all four leads, especially Pat Healy (who horror fans will remember from Ti West’s The Innkeepers).
The only set up you need is that Pat Healy’s an average guy, a good man, good husband and good father to a newborn baby. He’s a little spineless and broke as hell. His mediocre job was just pulled out from under his feet, there’s an eviction notice on his door and feeling so overwhelmed by his situation he goes to drown his sorrows with some cheap beer.
He runs into an old friend, played by the almost unrecognizable Ethan Embry (yeah, the kid from Dutch all growed up and intimidating) who is also on the outs, but seems to have lived life there so it’s not freaking him out as much. Enter a loud, obnoxious dude in a hipster hat and his way too pretty new bride and then the fun really starts.
David Koechner plays Colin, a guy so rich he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He just wants to have fun. Sara Paxton plays Violet, his seemingly disinterested new wife who spends most of her time looking at her phone.
Koechner calls the two men over and so begins the night of escalating wrongness.
This kind of story isn’t new… hell, there’s an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode (The Man From The South) that has a similar set up, but what makes this different is the skill Katz and screenwriters David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga show at building character.
Koechner should come across as mega-creepy, but he still somehow remains likable. He’s just a dude who wants a good time and who wants to keep impressing his easily bored bride. Paxton does fantastic work here as well. The more the movie unfolds the more you realize how much she’s pulling the strings at what’s going on. Even with that, it’s not a showy role and a lesser actress would have just disappeared in it. Not Paxton, though.
Embry completely redefines his image here and should now be firmly established as a tough guy in much the same way Norman Reedus has branded himself that way after a few seasons of The Walking Dead. His character, Vince, should be one note… a threatening guy that you don’t want to rile up, but he’s given a whole lot of gray area to explore and becomes entirely unpredictable by the end.
Pat Healy shoulders the burden on this film, though. You have to stick by this character through decision both good and bad or else the whole thing falls apart. Healy does so well that you’re rooting for him even when the game goes from harmless to icky to pitch black crazy-town stuff. You want this guy to win.
The audience reaction to the film was incredible and I don’t think it’s just an indication of a happy fest audience, either. I bet this one will blow up if Drafthouse Films can blast it out there. They just need to cut a trailer that sells just how fun it is.
I loved this one and it’s one of the only films I saw at SXSW that I wish I could watch again right away. I’ll be revisiting this one a few times.
Still got some more SXSW stuff to catch up, especially some really cool interviews. Will try to finish those off sooner than later. Stay tuned!