It starts with a trip to the bar to drown his sorrows, or at least steel his courage. Craig (Pat Healy) has been laid off. How can he tell his wife (Amanda Fuller) that they're about to be evicted? How will he support her and their baby?
Before this night is through, Craig will have run into the wrong old pal (Ethan Embry) from his skateboarding days. They will have downed a few shots as they caught up, and attracted the attention of the wrong rich couple (David Koechner and Sara Paxton). And those two, looking for "cheap thrills" by paying them to do foolish, dangerous and increasingly deadly pranks on a dare, will push Craig to his physical limits and make him question his own boundaries between right and wrong.
"Cheap Thrills" is a nasty, elemental thriller, basically a four-character play with blood and guts and sex and drugs and dares — starting with the one that makes Vince (Embry) slap a waitress on the behind. They flee the bar, and Craig is left facing an irate bouncer.
"Five hundred bucks if you hit him first!"
Craig needs the money. Vince, a collector for a loan shark, could use some himself. And Colin (Koechner), who tosses cash around in a never-ending effort to impress his dazed beauty of a trophy wife, Violet (Paxton), seems like the answer to their prayers.
Colin's ethos: "C'mon, it's her birthday." Colin's promise? "You will never forget this night, or who you were with."
As the evening rolls on, Craig, a starving writer who was moonlighting as a mechanic until that afternoon, wonders how far he will go and what's worse, how far Vince will go, just to stuff their pockets and live to pay the rent another day.
Screenwriters David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga have cooked up a violent and profane "Twilight Zone" episode, a realistic waking nightmare built around primal fears — personal injury, infidelity and financial ruin. It is a nerve-wracking and even gruesome affair with laugh-out-loud lines, a "midnight movie" that tilts toward the puerile and predictable.
Yes, the two old friends take stock of their lives, insult and hurt each other as things turn personal and ugly. Manhood will be measured in more ways than one, starting with Craig's punch-out with that bouncer.
Healy makes Craig's desperation palpable; Embry wears heavy boots to make himself tougher looking than he's ever been on screen; and Paxton wears a dazed malevolence as her "come hither" look.
And through it all, Koechner, with a resume of twisted, comically tortured losers stretching from "Waiting …" to the "Anchorman" films, is in his element. Colin is gross gaucherie incarnate, from his constant coke-snorting to his nauseating throat-clearing to the boundaries he not only crosses but refuses to so much as recognize.
He makes "Cheap Thrills" live down to its title, a darkly comic dare for filmgoers who refuse to avert their eyes, no matter how revolting things turn on the screen.