As Call-me-Dave’s Big Society collapses around our ears, marginalising more and more of us and widening the gap between the haves and the haven’t-got-a-hopes, director E.L Katz’s debut feature, blackly comic thriller Cheap Thrills, asks the question most of us have probably asked ourselves at some point when our backs are against the wall: how far would you go to pay the rent? Would you pick a fight with a bouncer? Would you take a beating, screw a stranger, mutilate yourself for someone else’s vicarious thrill? Would you…kill? How flexible is your personal morality? Everyone can be bought, everyone has their price. What’s yours?

Personally, I can probably be had for a couple of grand and a Piebury Corner Scotch pie.

When failed writer and struggling family man Craig (the brilliant Pat Healy from Compliance) loses his job down the auto-shop the same day he receives an eviction notice, stopping for a well-deserved beer on the way home before breaking the news to his wife Audrey (Amanda Fuller) seems like a good idea. Casually bumping into former skateboarding buddy Vince (Ethan Embry), now an ex-con working as muscle for a debt collector, the pair are drowning their sorrows when they are befriended by rich, coke-fuelled douchebag Colin (David Koechner) and his bored young trophy wife (Sara Paxton), Colin intent on throwing his money around and buying everybody drinks. A couple of shots of tequila later and Colin offers the guys a friendly wager – $50 to whoever’s first to down their shot. Before long he’s upping the ante, offering them more and more money for relatively minor bad behaviours; insult the drunk girl at the bar, slap that stripper’s ass, punch that bouncer. But it’s not until Craig and Vince get back to Colin and Violet’s lavish hillside home that they start to make some real money, Colin pitting the two friends against each other in humiliating and dangerous ever-escalating games of one-upmanship, constantly raising the bar, and the rewards, as they debase themselves and turn on each other. But just how far are they prepared to go?

With our multiplexes awash with torture porn, as an audience we’ve become jaded, inured to celluloid suffering; we get off on watching pneumatic hotties and speccy notties being put through hell by the likes of Jigsaw or your common or garden Aussie bushman. Sure, they’re being tortured to give us sick pleasure, a cheap thrill, but we’re not buying it, we’re bored. They’re ciphers, sacrificial lambs offered up to appease us and we are hungry gods, always wanting more, wanting better, nastier, more inventive, more extreme. The last film that genuinely gave me the delicious, visceral tingle of true shock (and this probably says something more worrying about me…) was 2010’s The Bunny Game and even then it was probably only because I knew that what I was watching unfold was actually ‘real’; say what you like about Charlize Theron’s Oscar-snaffling turn in Monster but Rodleen Getsic actually got beaten, shaved and BRANDED for The Bunny Game and she’s got the scars to prove it! That, ladies and germs, is commitment!

One of the more refreshing things about Cheap Thrills then is its ability to provoke and genuinely shock, to make us complicit in Craig and Vince’s suffering, thanks to Katz’s tight direction and the solid character work of the talented cast. Shot with a claustrophobic, seedy slickness that makes it feel like high-end porn, the film has a rich vein of humour blacker than veteran comic actor Koechner’s character Colin’s soul running through it and he’s perfectly cast as the tale’s ringmaster; a rich, vulgar low-rent Mephistopheles in a porkpie hat, slumming it in the Valley. Usually the good girl, Sara Paxton’s also good as the cast-against-type bored trophy wife, a blandly sexy, barely awake fembot. If Paris Hilton got her kicks from psychologically and physically torturing blue-collar bozos (and, who knows, she might), I’m guessing Paxton got her spot on. The film belongs though to Embry and Healy as the two desperate, ordinary schlubs with nothing left to lose. Trapped by circumstance and capricious fate, ground down by society, willing to do virtually anything, they’re partners in their own destruction more than victims, offering up their dignity, their morality, their friendship and their beaten, weary bodies in the pursuit of the safety, security and peace of mind the almighty dollar represents. Just another tale of everyday life under the Con-Dems.

The kind of film Michael Haneke might’ve made if he had a sense of humour, Cheap Thrills may be a little predictable, let’s face it, there’s only one destination for this particular journey, but it’s the route taken that’s important. Gripping, visceral, nasty and scabrously funny, Cheap Thrills is a joyously mean little shocker whose killer final image will haunt you long after the credits roll.


VERDICT: [rating=4]

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