Thursday, August 15, 2013

Cheap Thrills (2013): Subversive shock as critique

Cheap Thrills (2013)
dir: E.L. Katz
wr: David Chichirillo, Trent Haaga

Cheap Thrills is an upcoming black comedy that is far more subversive than A Serbian Film, less generally taboo, and far more shocking as a result.  Where A Serbian Film has the intent of thrusting all sorts of offenses at you and screaming at you that you need to be offended, Cheap Thrills pulls you in, and almost makes you implicit in the system that will, in the end, destroy what you held dear.

While I am comparing Cheap Thrills to A Serbian Film because that was the last film reviewed here, the real comparisons could be closer to Funny Games or The Cabin in the Woods in that it condemns the audience as much as it brings the audience in.  That Cheap Thrills will make you laugh far more than any of the films mentioned, and ultimately make you feel dirtier and grimier, is a testament to its strength as a film.

The plot of Cheap Thrills is simple, and also similar to A Serbian Film.  Two down on their luck guys are paid by a rich man to participate in a series of escalating dares.

Pat Healy plays Craig, a down-on-his-luck family man who is married with children who has just been laid off at the start of the film.  At a dive bar, he meets an old stomping ground friend, Vince (played by an unrecognizable Ethan Embry), who is also down on his luck.  Vince and Craig had been punk rebellious teenagers in this seemingly rust belt town.  Vince got into trouble, went to prison, and became somebody rough around the edges, while Craig tried to sand off his edges, became a family man, and toed the line as he got older.  Regardless of which path they took, they ended up at the same bar both with financial troubles.

So, we have the broke line-toer, and the broke rebel.  Then, they meet Colin (David Koechner), a rich man taking his hot young wife, Violet (Sara Paxton), out for her birthday.  To liven things up for the distant-seeming Violet, Colin starts paying Craig and Vince to participate in dares.  Things start innocuously enough, with dares such as harassing the female bartender, and escalate quickly.

Cheap Thrills is a comedy at first that makes you laugh as Craig and Vince get punished and paid for participating in dares, become hilarious, and quickly move into territory that is simultaneously horrific and hilarious.  And, eventually, becomes just plain horrific.  While I am not going to detail all that happens during the course of the movie, I will say that "if you're not offended, you're not paying attention."

First time director E.L. Katz has helmed a movie that confidently moves the emotions from hilarious to horrific.  He created an in-your-face punk-as-fuck masterpiece, that will probably be released without as much fanfare as it deserves because of the extreme content that is held within.  Katz doesn't waffle between comedy and horror because he isn't sure where you need to be.  Katz makes everything funny and everything horrific in order to manipulate his audience with his message.

This is not an empty-headed lark of a movie, which is why it makes you feel as dirty as it does.  And, though it is sledgehammer subtle, it is actually more sly than it may first appear.  This is a commentary on the state of economics in America.  You have the worker who has toed the line and done what was expected of him, and a rebel who has ended up in prison, but neither of them are better or worse than the other.  The worker believes himself to be better than the rebel, but the rebel insists that the worker is just as shitty.  Both of them are clawing at each other to beat the other one to the rich man's money, who lauds it over them.

Just watching The Daily Show, Fox News, or even reading newspaper sites, one probably has come to the realization that America has been eating itself.  The workers are fighting each other for the slice of the pie which has significantly shrunk in size.  We're not even fighting the ones in power for it, or when we do, we get hammered down because of it.  For instance, less than 6 months before the film was released, Hostess Bakery went under.  The first reports were that the Bakery went under because the unions went on strike, and everybody blamed the unions for it.  The unions killed the Twinkie.  However, as the reports continued, people found out that Hostess had been failing for years, had raided and stolen from their employees' pensions, had mandated that the employees pay into those pensions, and had given the board and CEO raises as they were demanding pay cuts from the unions.  The damage had already been done, and there are still many people who point to unions as evil for destroying a whole company.

Cheap Thrills, at first, makes you sympathize with the worker, and continues to make you side with somebody as you laugh while this whole macabre theater plays out.  At a certain point, you side with the rich man for awhile because he's playing the two actors by providing their motivation.  At a certain point, you side with the worker who is fighting tooth and nail to provide for his family.  At a certain point, you side with the rebel who is just being honest about why he's doing what he's doing.  By the end, you realize that you were completely involved in the action, and that you are just as at fault as any of the players for letting the situation happen.

That's the point of Cheap Thrills.  Much like Funny Games or The Cabin in the Woods, Cheap Thrills entertains as it condemns.  :Like A Serbian Film, Cheap Thrills is condemning the culture in which it was made.  It does a really good job of doing all of these things.  It is highly entertaining, and will make you wish you hadn't participated.  It will make you feel dirty and wrong and it offers no recourse in letting you off the hook.  This is a black comedy that doesn't let up.

Cheap Thrills is possibly the most vital and important movie I have seen this year.  That really doesn't say much, but it feels immediate, urgent, pressing, and a scream for help.  Everybody should be watching it, while not everybody will be able to handle it.

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