If you desperately needed money, what would you be willing to do in order to get your hands on a lot of it quickly? Living down to its title, Cheap Thrills poses an especially grim and grisly version of this question, setting up a game in which a pair of wealthy sadists, Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton), offer two hungry losers wads of cash in exchange for escalating acts of humiliation and violence. Craig (Pat Healy), a struggling writer, has just been laid off from his job as an auto mechanic and owes $4,500 in back rent; he’ll be evicted in a week (along with his wife and 15-month-old son) if he can’t come up with the full amount, and even that would only buy him a month. By chance, Craig has just run into an old high school pal, Vince (Ethan Embry), who works as a collector for a loan shark and is more than ready to cut corners—among other things—en route to a big score. Drinking together in a bar, they’re befriended by Colin and Violet, who initially pit them against each other in simple, innocuous contests ($50 for whoever downs a shot first), then take them to their house and gradually up the ante in increasingly sick ways.
In order for this scenario to work, each step down the ladder into the pit of degradation has to be credible. Craig and Vince aren’t being held against their will (a nice touch)—they’re free to turn down any offer, even after they idiotically try to rob Colin of the $250,000 Vince spies in the office safe. Early on, when the stakes are relatively low, everything is perfectly judged, from the hints that the ultra-passive Violet is largely controlling the situation to the ways in which Craig and Vince are manipulated to turn against each other. (Sensible people would quietly agree to work together and split the proceeds evenly, but festering resentment about their respective lots in life ensures that this option never even occurs to them.) Later on, however, screenwriters Trent Haaga (Deadgirl) and David Chirchirillo have some strange ideas about relative degrees of awfulness. Both men leap at the chance to experience tremendous pain and potentially permanent disfigurement for just $15,000; a bit later, $50,000 has a hard time persuading them to perform an act that thousands of people around the world do every single day without hesitation.
Even if Cheap Thrills isn’t always plausible, though, it’s still a fair amount of twisted fun, thanks mostly to a surprisingly, effectively low-key turn by Koechner as the game’s emcee. Rather than double down on the crass-boor persona he perfected in the Anchorman films and on The Office, he makes Colin almost disturbingly affable—just a party guy who enjoys seeing what his money can persuade others to endure. (The film’s class-war subtext isn’t terribly subtle, but neither is it overstated.) Healy and Embry, by contrast, aren’t as believably agonized as were the participants in last year’s little-seen Would You Rather, a similar sick-puppy contest in which the choices made are genuinely disturbing, even thought-provoking. Cheap Thrills merely concludes that the average person will sink to virtually any level for enough dough, and its knee-jerk cynicism is fairly easy to shrug off. Few will look at Craig and think “that could be me.”