SXSW Review: Cheap Thrills

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Cheap ThrillsWhat would you do to save your family from homelessness?  How far would you go? Those are the questions Pat Healy must answer in the movie Cheap Thrills, which played at SXSW and has since been acquired for distribution by Drafthouse Films.

Scripted by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga and directed by E.L. Katz, Healy stars as Craig, a writer struggling to make a living for his family as an oil-change mechanic. After the worst day of his life, Craig stops by a local dive bar for a drink he can't afford and meets former high-school buddy Vince (Ethan Embry), who he has not seen in five years.

After reluctantly staying for just one more drink, Craig finds himself in the middle of an unlikely adventure when the two are invited to celebrate with the bar's only other occupants, birthday-girl Violet (Sara Paxton) and her multi-millionaire husband Colin (David Koechner).

What follows is best left for the screen, but it is a disturbing and exhilarating experience. Healy and Embry are fantastic actors and both completely believable as they portray the awkard semi-tension between friends who have grown somewhat apart. That dynamic is obliterated by Koechner. Cheap Thrills couldn't have worked without any of the three, but Koechner is a regular Mephistopheles offering the friends a deal they can't refuse, and a tour through a hell of their own making. This is the kind of easygoing passive-aggressive sadist character Koechner has spent a career perfecting.

One of the most intense films I've ever seen, Cheap Thrills well deserves the SXSW audience award it earned in the Midnighters category. Unlike many schlocky midnight features, this is the kind of movie that should only be shown at midnight.  It's exceptionally graphic, but Katz has mastered the art of don't-show and tell, with a single sound effect that left half the audience jumping completely out of their seats and the rest curled instantaneously into the fetal position.