What would a desperate man do for money?  This is hardly a new theme for movies, but it's tackled with brutal simplicity in Cheap Thrills, a brutal, often funny movie about those need money playing games to entertain those who have it.

Craig Daniels (Pat Healy) is a family man -- wife, young daughter -- who wanted to be a writer but would up as an auto mechanic.  Craig and his family are facing eviction, but while he's hoping to get a raise, he winds up downsized instead.  Craig heads out to a bar to drown his sorrows, and he runs into Vince (Ethan Embry), an old friend Craig hasn't seen in five years.  Vince works as the muscle for bookies and knows something about violence and people who are desperate.

Their salvation or damnation comes from Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton), a married couple out celebrating Violet's birthday.  Colin is a loud, obnoxious hedonist, snorting coke and doing whatever he wants; Violet is withdrawn, barely noticing anything except when she's taking pictures of whatever interests her.  And while they're making bets with each other, they quickly decide to include Craig and Vince in their games.  The bets start relatively small, but soon grow into hundreds or even thousands of dollars.  They also grow more disgusting and dangerous, illegal and violent.  And as the night becomes morning and the booze and drugs flow, things between Craig and Vince become more strained and they compete for the money they both urgently need.

Cheap Thrills could almost be a play, with its focus almost entirely on the four main characters.  It could also have wound up as a simplified "the rich are bad, the struggling are good" polemic.  Instead, the movie occupies the space between horror and drama as we see two different people in need gradually devolving as they start turning on each other as they keep doing whatever they have to for that money Colin casually tosses around as his whims hit him.  The cast is quite good (especially Koechner, stepping out of his usual comic roles to deliver some real menace), the action remains tight, and the movie manages to be suspenseful and entertaining.  Cheap Thrills doesn't have the most original premise, but it delivers its good with some bloody gut-punches.  (DVD extras include commentaries and making-of features.)

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

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