Seen Cheap Thrills yet? Do so. Period. But be warned. What looks like a simple genre game of whack-a-mole is anything but. Characters do the most horrible things to each other, some of it is genuinely hilarious, but after a while it gets deep under the skin.
Sure there's a guy off to the side offering money to whoever will step up and over the line of common human decency but the motives of those participating are soon revealed as more than just simple greed. These are people on a journey of self-discovery. Writer and director Evan Katz has conjured a story that is every bit as hypnotic as it is disturbing. His neatest trick is to make you afraid to turn away since not knowing what happens next would be arguably worse than having to witness it
I caught up with cast members Pat Healy and Ethan Embry at Fantastic Fest last fall, he day after fellow cast member David Koechner, who plays the gambler in the film, whipped the audience into a near frenzied state of hilarity at the screening. Part of the fun was a genius bit of marketing that allowed audiences to engage in dares for prizes. Would you get a butt tattoo of a movies title, eat bugs or dip unmentionable body parts in a bowl of Siracha just to get a few measly bucks, a fest pass or some bragging rights?
But even with all the challenges taken nobody could be prepared for Koechner's less than sober all out assault on the mic which lasted a solid 45 minutes. He became the verbal embodiment of his character, daring us, the audience, to watch him destroy almost every last vestige of his dignity onstage. Was he acting? Was he drunk? Was he a genius? Yes, yes, yes.
Later when I talked to Pat and Ethan about the themes in the film I kept going back to those rants and I kept thinking that Cheap Thrills is an important film not just because it's so well written, well acted and well shot, but because it's human enough to let it all hang out there in the breeze and judge the living hell out of itself. Should you be watching this? Doesn't really matter. You need to. You need to put yourself in the characters shoes, in their lives, in their heads and realize that's what great film is all about. It changes you.
ScreenAnarchy: Did this strike you as a film that was too over the top to have been made ten years ago?
Pat Healy: It's the kind of movie that could only get made for the ridiculously short time and small budget that we had. It's so American it might have been somewhat....
Ethan Embry: Well it's definitely about America. It's all about that dog eat dog, top feeding the bottom kind of story. It says some ugly things.
Pat: It's the kind of movie Von Trier would have made about us.
Pat: But it's a lot less abstract.
Ethan: This is us how we really are from our point of view.
Pat: I love both those guys but I'm glad to see a movie made by American's that is able to engage in self criticism. In fact I think Cheap Thrills is rougher on us than a lot of those other films.
Another filmmaker who came to mind was Simon Rumley and his film RED, WHITE AND BLUE (2010). It was good to see Amanda Fuller in CHEAP THRILLS by the way.
Pat: Yeah, playing my wife. She is great.
The thing about RED, WHITE AND BLUE and, I think CHEAP THRILLS, is that they are films that don't just criticize some bland political or systemic social concept. They get into hearts and minds of characters struggling in those things.
Pat: It has to give you a chance to engage emotional or it just gets pedantic. I think sometimes movies about this stuff do that.
Yeah the minute you have to look into the character's eyes with some sort of understanding about what's brought them to that place.
Ethan: Well if you close your eyes and just listen to the sound it's like an episode of Jack Ass. But the second you open your eyes that nasty cycle of the top and bottom feeding one another is clearly based in some pretty intense human suffering.
Yeah there's definitely a nod to reality TV there. Some people like to watch and some people like to be the ones who actually inflict. And some people will just sell it all to get a little further ahead than they are now. I was actually encouraged the other day. The Honey Boo-Boo family came out and said, "This has been fun, and we've paid off some bills. But there's some things we aren't gonna do." They weren't afraid to go back to real life in other words.
Ethan: Everybody gets their 15 episodes of fame.
Pat: Well and the main reason something like that is so successful is that people who think their lives are lousy get to sit in judgement on people who they think are worse.
Ethan: Yeah that fifteen extra pounds you've put on don't seem so bad when you watch Honey Boo-boo.
Cheap thrills is all about that sort of Man from the South manipulation.
Pat: Yeah that's a story that's been adapted a lot. Roald Dahl wrote it, Hitchcock did it for his TV show. They did it again in the new version of the Hitchcock TV show in the eighties and then Quentin Tarantino riffs on it in Four Rooms. Our movie is like an eighty five minute version of it.
Except that you stop caring pretty quickly about who this mysterious gambler and his wife are.
Ethan: When do you think the audience keys in to that manipulation and the motives of the gambler?
As early as the bar it's there. But when you get back to the house it gets so sadistic and twisted. There's a real sense this is all about getting to witness the loss of innocence for that character.
Pat: Well part of the genius of the story is that both Ethan and I's characters end up discovering something really important about themselves. The film finds its moral center in a place that asks the audience to think harder about all the baggage they had when they walked into the theater. The real question is how do we tell who someone really is.
Ethan: It doesn't hurt for people to hear that it's okay to go through really hard times. People are so afraid of what will happen if they don't debase themselves. We all have opportunities to do things to get ahead but...
Pat: My life has gone through some really bad times. But I learned that if I hung in there it would get better. In fact, for me, the good times that came were even better than before. It sounds like a cliche. But it has to do with integrity.
Ethan: The scary thing is how well the immediate seems to fit. But you go a few years down the road and what seemed like an easy way out has made you into something.
Pat: Look at that Castro guy that imprisoned the women. When he was taken away people kept asking him what he was thinking and he kept saying, "I was very loving and considerate. I took care of them. I loved them." That is scary as hell.
Ethan: It happens in steps.
There are a lot of movies about that at Fantastic Fest this year . Ti West's THE SACRAMENT is one I think.
Pat: Ethan were you at the screening of that where they passed out the Kool-Aid to the audience.
Ethan: Are you kidding?
I talked to Ti about that and he said he really wasn't sure that was a good thing to do.
Pat: It was really eerie. I heard a lot of nervous giggling going on.
Well the basic idea that 900 hundred people from the US somehow wound up thousands of miles away and died that way ... you could never predict that.
Pat: That's what Cheap Thrills does I think. It owns the characters wherever they go. Even though there's a lot of humor in the film it's ultimately very real about its concern for the characters. I think when a movie can take something serious and let it emerge organically that is filmmaking at its most powerful. I'll drink that Kool-Aid.