Thursday, September 14, 2017

Money Makes the World Go 'Round: A Look at CHEAP THRILLS

**The following contains spoilers for the 2014 movie Cheap Thrills.**

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Cheap Thrills is a 2014 horror movie directed by E.L. Katz and written by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga. In it, two men Craig (Pat Healy) and Vince (Ethan Embry), are pitted against each other in a series of escalating dares for money funded by a wealthy man and his mysterious, aloof wife (David Koechner and Sara Paxton, respectively).

In researching this movie a little after watching this, I saw this movie billed as a "dark comedy." The Rotten Tomatoes consensus even described it as "darkly hilarious." To be clear, I really liked this movie, but I would not call it "hilarious" at all. It was a mean, brutal, nasty movie. That's not to say the movie is entirely without humor--especially Pat Healy, whose dry reactions to some of the terrible situations he finds himself in resulted in a quick dark chuckle from me. But overall, the tone of the movie struck me as very serious.

The movie offers a pretty solid critique of unregulated capitalism, which is perhaps not the intended message, but when the events of a movie revolve around money and its influence on people's behavior, it's always sort of the subtext. It's an admittedly flawed critique given that this was a commercially released movie subject to the capitalist system--but I digress.

Early on, the movie sets that both men are down on their luck. Craig finds an eviction notice on his door and owes $4500 or he, his wife, and his new baby will be out on the street. We learn that Vince and Craig knew each other in high school and that although Craig comes across as a nebbishy square, he was actually pretty wild back in the day. He's since mellowed dramatically and settled into a relatively normal domestic life. Meanwhile, Vince has fallen into the lucrative job of beating up people that owe money to loan sharks--a job that is both physically dangerous and puts him in danger of running afoul of the law and getting him sent back to prison for a long time.

Vince is kind of a dick. He hasn't seen Craig in five years, and yet feels the best way to greet his old friend is to wrap his arm around Craig's throat and demand money. This isn't a playful light grab either, he really gets in there and works Craig's neck, then laughs and slaps him on the back. Ah, friendship, right?

We can see a breakdown of the promise of capitalism in the trajectory these two men's lives have taken:

Craig has submitted to the capitalist, patriarchal system. He has done everything that should lead to a prosperous life. He's gotten a degree in higher education, but the movie implies that he lost or could never attain a job that fit his degree. Instead, he starts the film working a much humbler job in an auto garage changing oil--a job from which he's laid off at the movie's start due to corporate downsizing. There is no pulling himself up by his bootstraps. His job at the garage wasn't even paying the bills, and with that gone, he is fucked in a very big way, and it was through no fault of his own. Bad luck fucked Craig over.

Meanwhile, Vince is doing okay. He seems to make decent money from his job (beating up poor people), and even offers to help Craig with money, but even he doesn't have $4500 to spare. There's some simmering tension between Craig and Vince in these early interactions, and it gets played out more explicitly later in the film. Vince breaks the rules. He operates outside of the law, and he's a financial success for it, even though he dropped out of high school and never matured out of his wild ways. Meanwhile Craig is drowning, in spite of having done everything he's supposed to do to succeed.

Enter the wealthy Colin and Violet who at first seem friendly and relatively benign. Colin explains that it's Violet's birthday, and he wants to entertain her. His solution is to present an escalating series of dares that each man will complete for cash. There's plenty of examples of this type of guerrilla-style competition in reality TV--such as Cash Cab and Billy on the Street--and of course obvious examples like Fear Factor. Some of the dares are individualized to the specific person, some are more of a competition to see who can complete the dare first.

The dares start harmless--first one to drink this shot gets $25. They quickly become gross if unfortunately common place--Vince and Colin are dared to go up to a waitress and make her angry enough to slap them. Vince proves to be a bit sly and rather than falling into the expected trope of misogyny--the clearly implicitly preferred method by Colin--and just tells her straight up to slap him so he can win the money. Colin later re-establishes patriarchal norms by daring Vince to slap a strippers ass.

Colin's vast amount of money and lack of morals puts him in a position of power. He doesn't honestly care who gets hurt or what trouble is caused as long as he's having fun, and he has enough money to remove any potential obstacles. The first time we see Colin, he's in the bathroom doing cocaine. Later, when the group has begun the dare competition, Colin starts doing cocaine in the open. When a waitress tries to stop him, he pays her several hundred dollars to turn a blind eye--which she does because what waitress would turn down that much money when they typically make less than minimum wage?

Each time that Colin crosses a line and introduces a dare that violates a moral or social rule, there's just enough money to tantalize Craig and Vince to keep playing. Craig is facing imminent homelessness and has to figure out a way to protect his wife and his child. The patriarchal system has a rigidly enforced gender binary system in which men traditionally are the breadwinners and protectors. Failing to provide adequately for your family is not just a problem in all the obvious ways, but demonstrates you are a failure as a Man, and Craig is feeling that pressure to provide. He's been hiding at least some of their financial issues from his wife.

Vince's needs are more self-interested than Crag's since he has no family that we know of that he has to provide for. However, we learn that Vince went to prison at some point, and the prison system is a complex system set up to feed into itself. Once in, it's like being caught in the gravitational pull of a planet--almost impossible to escape. People that go to prison are more likely to go back because 1) the prison system isn't designed to rehabilitate and teach, but rather to punish, and 2) many--really most--employers won't hire criminals, especially felons, which makes finding and maintaining employment next to impossible. All the higher paying jobs have you submit to a criminal background check, and if you fail, you're out of luck, even though ostensibly you have paid your debt to society and should be allowed to reintegrate. Many criminals end up falling back into crime to make money because it's the only way for them to make enough money to be able to live--which is exactly what happened to Vince.

So then Craig and Vince get into a bidding war to the bottom over who will cut off a pinkie.

What the fuck, right? Yeah, this is probably the moment when this movie turns from sinister and uncomfortable to the kind of violent horror you've been expecting.

Colin dares Vince to cut off his pinkie for $25,000. Craig surprises Vince by countering that he'll do it for $20,000. When Vince confronts him about trying--as Vince views it--take money from him, Craig explains that the money he's earned so far will cover his immediate financial issues, but not the actual cause. Getting that much money could provide him time to find another job and build up a buffer rather than desperately flailing from paycheck to paycheck--he was, after all, about to be evicted BEFORE he lost his job.

Eventually, Craig wins the bidding war, cutting his pinkie off for $15,000, and is then dared even more money if he'll eat his finger.

The movie culminates in a winner-take-all scenario when, unbeknownst to each other, they are each dared to kill the other. We aren't aware at first that Craig has been given the same offer--$250,000 to kill his old friend. We only see Colin offer that to Vince. Vince has been set up to be a bastard throughout the movie. He's been in prison. During a breath-holding contest, he punched Craig in the stomach to make him lose. He's the one that cuts Craig's pinkie off, and rather than putting it on ice so Craig can have it re-attached, he throws it aside, which allows a dog he stole earlier in the movie to choke on the finger and die. He's been willing to slap women on the ass, harass people, and he tries to rob Colin and just make off with the money at one point. But at the last minute, even though Vince has been portrayed as the more selfish, crueler, morally weaker one, he can't kill his old friend. It's shocking, then, when Craig turns around and shoots Vince in the head.

Once again demonstrating that there are virtually no obstacles that money can't overcome, Colin calls someone to come clean up his house and dispose of the body. Craig goes home, mutilated, humiliated, but financially secure.

The movie ends in a darkly humorous scene of Craig, bloodied, mangled, and exhausted, trying to comfort his crying baby. His wife comes in, and the final shot is a wide shot of Craig, looking absolutely horrifying, surrounded by the cash he won. The obvious final question is whether it was all worth it? Which is worse--undergoing physical and psychological torture to set yourself up financially, or to lose your home and endanger not just yourself but your wife and child? To add insult to injury, after Craig leaves, Colin gives Violet $20 because even the murder was actually a dare between Colin and Violet. What's more, it isn't even a high wager--only a $20 bet between the two.

The movie is harrowing and sometimes extremely hard to watch. There were parts that made me squirm from discomfort. That said, as a microcosm to play out many of the issues that already plague the workforce and unregulated capitalism as a whole, it was fascinating. There have been lots of movies that have involved people being put in impossible life-or-death situations and being forced to do things that are morally reprehensible or physically unbearable. The Saw series, The Belko Experiment, Circle (2015)--not to be confused with the 2017 Emma Roberts/Tom Hanks movie--and House of 9 are all examples of this type of scenario. But all of those are involve everyone being expected to murder each other on the threat of death. This movie is unique in that Craig and Vince aren't being held under the threat of any violence, mutilation, or death. They are told repeatedly that they can leave any time they want. But if they do...what are they going back to? And they do so with the knowledge that they could have done something to change their circumstances if only they'd stuck it out a little longer.

Every step of the way, the movie's mission statement is "Money makes the world go 'round." The only people able to escape the consequences of their actions are Colin and Violet because they have enough money to throw at any obstacles to make them disappear. Ultimately, everything Vince and Craig endure is just a game to them because when it's over, they go back to being unbelievably wealthy and carefree. The scars, both literal and metaphorical, are born by those that can't buy their way out of trouble and can't turn away from a chance to become even a fraction of what Colin and Violet are, even if it costs them everything in the end.