Desperate times call for desperate measures. And a lot of really gross stuff. This is the sly premise behind the smart -- and, yes, very gross -- thriller “Cheap Thrills,” which has dazzled Midnight festival crowds for the past year and hits theaters March 21.
Directed by E.L. Katz from a script by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga, the film’s premise is simple -- perfect, really, for intelligently executed low-budget fare. Craig (the great indie character actor Pat Healy) has just lost his car mechanic job, and an eviction notice stares him down from the door of his apartment. He has a wife and small baby. In other words, the future looks grim.
He decides to drink away his sorrows at a local bar, where he accidentally reunites with an old high school friend, Vince (Ethan Embry), and together they meet a crass, rich couple, Colin and Violet (David Koechner and Sara Paxton), who get a kick out of daring the two men to do stupid stuff for absurd amounts of money. The party heads back to one of Colin’s revoltingly decorated L.A. pied-a-terres (in Gatsby land, it would be the worst of the West Egg residences), where the dares slowly ratchet up from dumb to stomach-turningly terrifying.
There’s that saying about a frog being put in water while the temperature is gradually turned up to scalding. The idea is similar in “Cheap Thrills,” but instead it’s two men facing dire financial straits, and the escalating amount of humilities they’ll endure for some quick and hefty cash.
Healy’s alternately hilarious and very sad performance anchors the film. With a round face and small eyes that peer out at the world with reluctance and something a bit more sinister, he’s been cast as the everyman (“The Great World of Sound”) and the malevolent creep (“Compliance”). Those two archetypes meld well in his “Cheap Thrills” role, where Healy’s Craig has to be just enough of a sadsack to go through with the dares, but also just ruthless enough to, well, go through with the dares.
It would be a shame to give away the gruesome tasks Craig and Vince are asked to complete, as finding out in due time is part of the delight and complete disgustingness of the film. Suffice to say there is blood, vomit, shit, semen and a truly nauseating main course.
And in the middle of everything there’s the most upsetting undercurrent of all -- meaninglessness. While the stakes are impossibly high for Craig and Vince, Colin and Violet watch on with boredom masked by titillation. It’s a game to them. Thus “Cheap Thrills” is more than its title implies. Underneath the gore and giggles, it’s a shrewd class critique.
"Cheap Thrills" hits theaters March 21, via Drafthouse Films.