How low would you sink for just £10? How about £100? What type of degrading act would you perform for £1000? In E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills (2013) the price of dignity is individually appraised and valued, suggesting that each of us has our price. Presenting the audience with an absurdist illustration of the class struggle, Cheap Thrills is a grotesque pantomime of American economic disparity. Craig (Pat Healy) removes a solitary banknote from his wallet and hands it to his wife before kissing his son on the forehead and leaving for work. On the wall of his tiny one-bed apartment we see a framed example Craig’s published writing. However, the eviction notice on his front door proves even more revealing.
Things only get worse for Craig when he discovers he’s just be let go by his work. Drowning his sorrows in a local bar, he chances upon Vince (Ethan Embry), an old school friend also struggling financially. Whilst the pair reminisce and drink away their troubles, they catch the eye of a couple sat in the corner of the bar. The pair approach Craig and Vince and offer them the opportunity to make some easy money by partaking in a series of dares for their entertainment. As these challenges become more perverse and the cash incentives increase exponentially, Craig and Vince find themselves pitted against one another in a desperate race to the top. Through a series of increasingly outrageous parlour games, Katz unveils his reductive statement on how the working classes have become pawns to the rich.
This isn’t to say that this class-conscious comic-gorno misses the mark, far from it. After all there can only be class warfare when the other side fights back and it’s clear from the start that Cheap Thrills is a damming critique of the economic inequality in America. An exploitative gladiatorial death match for an audience weaned on viral bumfights and shows like, Jackass Katz plays fast and loose with the comedy and gore, competently satirises contemporary culture’s shift towards exploitative entertainment and striking a solid balance between black comedy and absurdist set pieces. However, as the film builds to a shocking crescendo, the underlying message begins to fade behind the visceral violence and nefarious bravado. The way Katz turns his feuding protagonists against one another feels almost too reactionary, playing to the sensationalism it’s attempting to critique.
Walking this fine line, the film eventually sways a little too close to the behaviour it’s reproaching, all too happy to wallow in the moral wasteland of humanity without sufficiently illuminating the flaws of the system. During the film’s pivotal scene, where Katz elaborately depicts how individualism has led to a dog-eat-dog (or ‘man-eat-dog’) world it’s hard to refute that the director is far too caught up in its celebration of carnage. Unable to efficiently illustrate how anger at social inequality is too often redirected at the marginalised, rather than the real villains at the top Cheap Thrills is a commendably flawed experiment in imbuing social anxiety with genre shocks.