In any medium, the virtuous man led astray is hardly a new concept. Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad has made any prior and subsequent attempts to understand the psyche of the heteronormative white male in America motivated by greed obsolete in comparison. So when a film like Cheap Thrills comes around and has its bloodied white character announce that he’s doing “it all for my family”, it’s hard not to think of Bryan Cranston’s Walter White offering a similarly loaded declaration. Yet the parallels extend beyond the superficial line-lifting to suggest a growing anxiety of white male angst when confronted with growing socioeconomic uncertainty.
Craig (Pat Healy) has a wife and child to support with his earnings as a mechanic. Just as Craig leaves his small apartment, his wife reminds him to ask for that raise. As he exits, an eviction notice has been posted on the door. Clearly times are tough and they only get harder as Craig ends up getting fired that same day. The opening images don’t develop much of a rhythm but do offer glimpses into the clarity of Craig’s frame of mind. Director E.L. Katz emphasizes only the most crucial details - when Craig is fired, the confrontation is handled largely in mumbled voiceover with only “downsizing” becoming the prominent overture on the soundscape. For a first time director, Katz’ skills are largely vested in the audial and editing qualities to Cheap Thrills, along with proving capable of working with a group in confined spaces. Three additional characters are brought into the fray as Craig embarks on a bender - and where the film expands and contracts its scope.
The film’s premise suggests that man will do just about anything for money. Though a classic auteur like Billy Wilder penned many scripts based on that very premise, Cheap Thrill scribes David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga amplify that premise with violent flourishes. The film becomes a series of dares as two rich socialites extend gratuitous tips to their poor party guests - from punching a stripper bouncer to a challenge of cutting off one’s finger. Would you eat a microwaved dog for $50,000? That’s the extent to which Cheap Thrills can become a conversation piece. The intended effect is comic with the film summoning on some darkly crude and at times impressively disgusting sights. But Cheap Thrills is so condensed and ultimately limited in where it can go. It’s a one-off suggestion on where America, particularly lower-class white men, is headed when social and economic conditions are strained. It’s a primer, and not a particularly effective one, to something as strikingly realized as Breaking Bad.