'Cheap Thrills'

Does everyone have a price? Do I? Things have worked out well enough for me -- and for almost everyone I know and love -- that such ethical questions have really only come up hypothetically.

It's an unsettling thought in the abstract because, well, you just don't know do you until you need the money badly enough, the sum is high enough, or both. Cheap Thrills turns the hypothetical in to the actual, pairing a couple of working-class frienemies with a wealthy middle-aged man and his trophy wife -- the latter offering the former escalating sums of cash in hand in exchange for increasingly outrageous acts that give them a twisted sense of amusement and not much else.

The film has its Saw-like moments of shocking gore as Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton) dangle the prospect of a life-altering payday in front of Craig (Pat Healy) and Vince (Ethan Embry), most memorably when one of the two agrees to chop off his pinky with a meat cleaver. But it is at its most unsettling when it lulls you in to moments of calm -- near serenity -- only to jerk you out of them all the more abruptly.

The film opens this way, with Craig snuggling up to his wife and caring for his 15-month-old son, only to have him walk outside their apartment and find an eviction notice, then go to his job as an auto mechanic and lose it. Its principal setup seems innocent enough, Craig and Vince, having not seen each other in five years, sharing a drink at a local dive bar and catching up before happening across Colin and Violet as they celebrate her birthday. Even its conclusion is half innocuous, a battered, blood-drenched Craig again holding his son, carrying enough cash to have secured their future, but he himself changed irrevocably.

The see-saw tone wouldn't work with another story, but it is perfect here. Most of us like to think we have our red lines. Few of us ever have them tested Craig and Vince are tested by the detached Violet and the just-a-bit-too-friendly-to-trust Colin.

Cheap Thrills is unusual because it is as much a morality play as it is a horror flick. At no point are Craig and Vince imprisoned by Colin and Violet, which means their degradations are self-inflicted. Director E.L. Katz uses scores of tight, jerky closeups on Craig and Vince to document their downward spiral. With the background in these shots often blurred to the point that you can only discern rough outlines, you are forced to drink in the anguish and the progressive foreboding of these impromptu jesters-for-hire.

There's some light class warfare to be found, if that's what you're after. Here are two lower-class gents desperate enough for cash that they'll dance just about any dance for a relatively nominal sum.

I'd prefer to fixate on the way in which Katz and writers David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga undermine preconceived notions at every turn. Craig is the reluctant family man, while Vince is a neighborhood tough, who makes his living collecting gambling debts. One wants to care for his family. The other is mostly out for himself. Neither reacts to Colin and Violet's demented game in the way you might expect, given their circumstances, which is enough to make your own personal red lines seem more blurry than ever.