Despite illusions of stability, society teeters on a fault line that can be triggered by the simplest disturbance. The U.S.’s own economic trajectory, subject to more ebbs than flows of late, leaves a lot of hard-working folks behind. In order to survive, most of us have had to make concessions. These compromises, we hope, give us safety and security in a landscape of uncertainty. The desperate behavior of our citizenry, however, betrays those notions, and many resort to unsavory acts just to make ends meet.

These issues permeate the atmosphere of E.L. Katz’s thrilling debut feature Cheap Thrills, a film concocted by the deranged minds of screenwriters Trent Haaga (Chop, Deadgirl) and David Chirchirillo. It’s the story of how far desperate people will go when tempted by the lure of easy cash. The proverbial carrot chasers in this case are reunited friends Craig (Pat Healy) and Vince (Ethan Embry), both in the midst of a drunken bender after Craig loses his job and faces eviction. Dangling the gold-plated carrot is affluent Colin (David Koechner) and his aloof wife Violet (Sara Paxton), both of whom invite the susceptible men over to their fancy home under the pretense of celebrating Violet’s birthday. Throughout a night distorted by booze and drugs, the couple will subject Craig and Vince to indecencies that escalate to a shockingly bloody degree by the film’s end.

A number of interesting things converge to make Cheap Thrills work as a captivating, if not grueling commentary on the contemporary American landscape. The film borrows elements from the extreme stunts of Jackass, as well as reality television competitions like Fear Factor as its jumping point. Frequent dips into Grand Guignol levels of gruesomeness, however, give Cheap Thrills a potency that strengthens its observations, while posing philosophical questions about where we’re headed as a culture. Katz smartly doesn’t attempt a definitive answer to these formulated questions; though represented in an over-the-top manner, he merely wants to provide a snapshot of “reality” culture. And if having a scene where character must dismember his own fingers is the way to do that, so be it.

Suspension of disbelief, though necessary here, is made possible by proper doses of realism when Cheap Thrills‘ events tip toward the outrageous. The stakes are rather high, especially for Craig, facing eviction with a wife and child at home. Vince, alluding to an unpleasant job as mob enforcer, would like to find a way out of his violent life. It’s not a stretch to believe these two men would participate in such heinous acts as a means of obtaining financial freedom, or at least the ability to start over. Influenced by intoxicants and the charm of their hosts, they submit fully to massively disturbing one-upmanship.

Cheap Thrills is a gripping, tightly-woven film that never dulls the edge of its satirical sword. Even though its sometimes extreme situations warrant laughter, we continue to identify with Craig and Vince. Cheap Thrills‘ third act goes to a particularly dark place which, again, seems entirely plausible given the very realistic circumstances at play. Katz commented during a Q&A at the Boston Underground Film Festival that Cheap Thrills is just as much a commentary on party culture in Los Angeles. How long before entertainment reaches the level of snuff remains to be seen.

– By Chris Hallock