*** (out of four)
They say everyone has their price. Craig’s (Chicago native Pat Healy) appears to be $500.
That’s what it takes for him to participate in a game orchestrated by wealthy strangers Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton), who kick things off with small challenges. Get that girl to slap you for $50. Smack that stripper’s behind for $200. Craig passes; his old pal Vince (an unrecognizable Ethan Embry of “Can’t Hardly Wait”) jumps at the chance. Not until the married couple, expertly manipulating these blue-collar schmoes, offer $500 to punch a bouncer, does husband and new father Craig take the bait. And, of course, that’s just the beginning.
“Cheap Thrills” is like a modern “Twilight Zone” episode crossed with what Colin himself deems a non-televised reality show. It’s the first movie since “The Box” that directly asks characters to toe the line between morality and money. The filmmakers stack the deck a little high: Craig loses his job and has an eviction notice looming over his head later the same day. He’s a fish in a barrel for this kind of opportunity; surely Colin and Violet don’t hit the jackpot with every target. And while several better-left-unspoiled levels of this escalating game startle and disturb, the ultimate test moves the movie from chilling to predictable.
Yet first-time feature director E.L. Katz achieves sustained unease throughout. Writers David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga craft revealing details, and the cast only helps. Koechner’s a disturbing hoot, playing with the increasingly unhinged Healy and Embry. But it’s Paxton who most unsettlingly harnesses part of what makes “Cheap Thrills” so irresistible. In a story about hearing a skateboarder hit by an SUV, and in her facial expressions as she observes the entertainment her husband has orchestrated for her birthday party, sociopathic Violet comes off both empty and clever. That's a lethal combination.
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