Movie Review: Cheap Thrills [2013]

Cheap Thrills [2013]

Cheap Thrills [2013]
Director: E.L. Katz
Writers: David Chirchirillo, Trent Haaga
Genre: Comedy/Thriller
Starring: Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, Sara Paxton, David Koechner
Running Time: 88 minutes

Craig (Pat Healy) is having a really bad day. In a matter of just a few hours, he receives an eviction notice and loses his job as an auto mechanic. Now unemployed and staring at the very real possiblity of his family (a wife and infant child) being homeless, Craig attempts to find solace at a nearby dive bar. While drinking alone, he is approached by Vince (Ethan Embry), an old buddy he hasn’t seen in five years. Right away it’s clear the two have little in common anymore. Craig is a family man, no longer the skater and partier he once was, whereas Vince still has the same low ambitions he has had since high school.

Their awkward small talk is interrupted by a loud and boisterous man at a nearby table. This is their introduction to Colin (David Koechner) and his trophy wife Violet (Sara Paxton), a rich couple who are spending an absurd amount of money without a care in the world. Seemingly bored and looking for action, Colin starts proposing a series of dares to his new acquaintances in return for increasing amounts of money. The propositions start off innocently enough — $50 for whoever does a shot of tequila first, $200 for the first person to get slapped by a woman at the bar — but as the night progresses, the stakes get higher.

Cheap Thrills [2014]

Though darkly comedic to the end, the film really kicks into gear when the group of four go back to Violet’s house. The dares get increasingly vulgar (think bodily fluids) and violent (think blood, lots and lots of it). To get into specifics would be a great disservice to the film — seriously, do not even watch the trailer — as half the fun is seeing just how far these two men will go to make some quick cash.

Craig and Vince are the perfect targets for such shenanigans. Craig is, of course, looking to gain some income to keep his family afloat for the next several months, while Vince sees this as a way to make his life even easier. Though the two of them had been friends long ago, their relationship is now flimsy enough that neither is afraid to take drastic measures to make sure they get the cash.

Cheap Thrills [2013]

Pat Healy, the great indie character actor, and Ethan Embry both do so well in this. Healy, in particular, is frightening in his progression from everyman to a testosterone-fueled competitor. Sara Paxton excels as an emotionally vacant wife, but it is David Koechner who steals the show. Best known for his work in comedies like Anchorman, Koechner is much different here with his nice guy persona. There is a certain tension every time he is on the screen simply because he is so unpredictable. The fact that he is so generally friendly at first makes it so jarring — and fearsome — when he pushes his contestants further and further into increasingly volatile dares.

Although it may sound like a simple thriller, there’s more to Cheap Thrills than meets the eye. The film can be looked at as a commentary on the YouTube generation, a group that watches other people get hurt for their own amusement (it seems every day there’s a new fight video that goes viral). In fact, Violet is documenting the entire evening by taking pictures every time the guys do something senseless. There’s also an allegory of the rich controlling the poor (i.e. the 1% versus the 99%). But regardless of how you want to look at the film, it’s not something you will be forgetting anytime soon. Don’t be surprised if this is considered a cult classic in the next several years.

8/10

Movie Review: Compliance [2012]

Compliance [2012]

Compliance [2012]
Director: Craig Zobel
Screenplay: Craig Zobel
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller
Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker and Pat Healy
Running Time: 90 minutes

Imagine you are the manager of a popular fast food restaurant. What would you do if you received a phone call from someone claiming to be a police officer who is investigating a complaint that one of your employees stole money from a customer? Would you agree to help the officer by keeping the employee, a 19-year-old woman, in a back room while searching her things? Would you agree to strip search her?

It’s easy to scoff at the notion of agreeing to do any of these things. Most of us would ask for some sort of police identification, right? Or make the cop come to you and question the girl in person? It seems like common sense, but the truth is that we really don’t know how we would react in a situation without having been there before.

Compliance tells the story of the above scenario, and every single aspect of the film is 100% true. Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager of a local ChickWich restaurant, receives a phone call from a man claiming to be Officer Daniels (Pat Healy). He notifies her about the fake complaint, and she brings the 19-year-old “suspect”, Becky (Dreama Walker), into the back room to investigate. Firmly believing she is talking to a police officer, Sandra follows along with the man’s orders, even going so far as to perform a strip search. As if that weren’t worse enough, the “investigation” spirals out of control as other people become involved, and Becky is forced into even more unfathomable actions.

Compliance [2012]

During the entire film, I found myself saying over and over: “are you kidding me?” and “I can’t believe this is happening.” It is mind-blowing that the manager, the victim and the others who get tangled in the mess all willingly go along with this person’s orders simply because they believe he is a cop. It all sounds so ridiculous that it can’t possibly be real… but it absolutely is. After viewing the film, I immediately looked up the true story, and every single detail was accurate.

Watching this man, who we occasionally see on the other end of the phone, manipulate both the manager and employee is extremely uncomfortable. This is not an easy watch by any means, and its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last year brought out a number of angry reactions. Some walked out of the screening; others resorted to shouting matches. Yes, this is a film capable of evoking those types of powerful emotions, and it’s unlike any other film in recent years.

Compliance [2012]

This is only director Craig Zobel’s second full-length film (he is also co-founder of the popular animated Internet cartoon, Homestar Runner), and he already has the traits of a seasoned veteran. He is careful not to show us some of the more extreme moments of compliance on screen, thankfully, and he makes masterful use of long takes, especially near the end. The performances from all involved are also strong, especially from Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker. I heard Dowd’s name being mentioned in some awards chatter, and her performance most certainly warrants recognition. And poor Walker, she does an amazing job in a difficult role, especially as she is half-naked for the majority of the film.

It’s a bit tricky to full-on recommend Compliance. It’s a masterful piece of filmmaking, but damn if it isn’t an unsettling watch. At the very least, it’s scary to imagine just how far some people will go when they are being ordered around by someone of authority.

9/10