Masculinity in film, as in society, is layered and complex, often leaning toward toxicity and the illusion of “hardness” as a strength. With the idolization of such characters as Harry Callahan (Dirty Harry, 1971), Paul Kersey (Death Wish, 1974), Travis Bickle(Taxi Driver, 1976) and other such hyper-masculine vigilante personas throughout film history, viewers have a distinct concept of what cinema believes makes a man a real man, and understand the implications of showing weakness or vulnerability. Both challenging and adhering to the stereotypes of masculinity, E.L. Katz’s 2013 sleeper sensation Cheap Thrills follows Craig, (Pat Healy), a burdened man whose hopelessness and shame leads him into a single night of escalating depravity and violence.
When Craig first appears in Cheap Thrills, his modest apartment, loving wife and new baby are elements of a life seemingly on track. But all it takes is a step outside into the world to reveal an eviction notice hanging on his door. Despite his intention to ask for a raise, Craig instead gets laid off from his job as a mechanic, and he is thrust into a spiral of self-loathing at the bottom of a bottle at a local dive bar. When Craig encounters his old friend Vince (Ethan Embry), they quickly fall into habits of one-upmanship and playful ribbing, giving the viewer an idea of what their friendship may have consisted of so long ago. Vince is handsy, quick to put Craig into a headlock and push him around in a way that gives the strong impression that their previous interactions were fueled heavily by “typical” boy behavior.
It doesn’t take long for Craig to lower his guard with Vince in Cheap Thrills, either out of desperation for camaraderie or just pure desperation. Surprisingly, Craig opens up about his financial woes in no time at all, going so far as to ask Vince if he could give him a job. But as Vince reveals his post-jail occupation — a loan chaser who isn’t afraid to use violence as a tool for collection — he alludes to Craig’s incapability of inflicting the kind of pain that is required for the job.
As a viewer, this exchange could be interpreted as highly condescending. Vince’s insinuation that Craig isn’t “man enough” to travel down his dark path could be a direct insult to his friend’s masculinity. But the way in which Embry portrays the character makes this scene more of a friendly warning that it isn’t as easy as one may think to hurt a person. Vince seems to really like Craig and, at times, envy his simple family life. Craig, on the other hand, sees Vince as beneath him; without saying such, a sideways glance or a wordy jab betrays his feelings. What exists between the two men is a battle of intellectual and physical merits, the very battle that is being fought in the current political and social climate.
The comparison can be made to a type of perceived push and pull between the “intellectual class” and the “working class.” Although Craig is a working-class man in his mechanic trade, Vince believes that he is too smart and weak to understand the macho/violent nature of his job. And in turn, Craig believes that Vince is too brutish to understand the needs he must fulfill as a provider for his family. In actuality, the men aren’t all that different, but in these first moments of Cheap Thrills, Katz effectively displays the inherent separation that exists between the friends after five years apart.
After the initial encounter, Vince notices a beautiful woman sitting alone. He uses the opportunity to harangue Craig for his choice to have “one piece of ass for life,” the antiquated ideation of toxic masculinity that freedom is lost once a man is married. Craig excuses himself to the bathroom just as a stranger finishes snorting cocaine off a toilet seat. After the person exits, Craig sees that the man has tossed his used straw, a hundred-dollar bill, into dirty toilet water. In the moment, Healy’s character weighs his options. Is it worth it to acquire fishing money from a toilet? Would that act, that no one would ever know about, be worth sacrificing a bit of his pride?
Returning from the bathroom, Craig sees that Vince has made friends with the beautiful woman, Victoria (Sara Paxton), and the coke-snorting stranger, Colin (David Koechner) — a married couple looking for a thrilling birthday night. Colin instantly displays his social value by ordering the bar’s most expensive bottle of tequila, before challenging Craig and Vince to a lightning quick bet — $50 to the first guy to take a shot. Vince establishes himself as ready to roll by taking the shot without pause, effectively putting Craig on edge and pitting the two against each other in the first of many wagers.
Colin proceeds to offer $200 to the first guy to get a woman at the bar to slap him. Craig approaches the woman, hunched and insecure, before quickly retreating, giving Vince the opportunity to complete the bet. When Craig asks him what he said to her, Vince reveals that he offered to buy the woman a drink if she slaps him. This escalation toward violence is subtle but accepted without question, and the only push back comes from Craig insisting that Vince didn’t play by the rules. To that, Colin makes it very clear that the only rules they must play by are those he creates, and those rules are his to change with impunity. This structureless game play continues into the wee hours of the night as the group continues the party at Colin’s mansion in the L.A. hills.
The presence of Victoria, a younger woman who appears painfully bored, puts into place a kind of unspoken competitiveness and machismo posturing between both Craig and Vince. Colin is an older man, and by all outward appearances it could be said that Victoria is only with him for his money. To Craig and Vince, she’s likely completely unattainable. So, when Victoria begins to favor Craig, giving him physical attention and eventually offering to pay Craig money to have sex with her, this stirs jealousy in Vince upon the realization that she is attainable, but not to him. Vince offers to have sex with Victoria for free, an effort to “save” Craig from cheating on his wife. But, out of the many degrading and painful bets already completed to that point, this is one that Craig doesn’t take long to decide on.
With Colin encouraging Craig to have sex with Victoria to keep his family off the street, it is revealed that the former character found the eviction notice in the latter’s pocket, thereby cluing him into a state of desperation. This gives Colin leverage that, to this point, no one knew he had. It is assumed that Vince would go along with the bets, as he is the apish counterpart to Craig’s thoughtful family man, but the upper hand so clearly belongs to Colin that, at this moment, there’s almost a sense of calm that washes over Healy’s character. Craig can let go of his dithering and accept his fate. He needs the money that he’s been sacrificing his body, mind and, quite possibly, his marriage for. To Craig, playing these games equates to doing his job as a man to care for his family.
More than anything, the concept of masculinity and manhood is challenged in Cheap Thrills. Craig is quick to react when he believes Vince has cheated, his voice taking on a boyish whine, insisting that he deserves a fair chance. But it is Craig’s willful ignorance that has him assuming that the game is anything but rigged against both friends. From the beginning, they are pitted against one another and used to entertain the bored upper-class couple with their pitiful lower-class hopelessness, the kind of desperation that one may laugh at while watching a reality show, as Colin at one point likens the game to.
Reality shows like Fear Factor (2001-2006) and The Swan (2004-2005) intentionally feed off viewers’ hunger for schadenfreude, the enjoyment derived from watching another person’s degradation and humiliation. Like Colin and Victoria, viewers tune in to watch a person eat bull balls for money, they watch a woman judged solely on her looks before undergoing extensive and possibly life-threatening surgery to conform to the societal norms of beauty. These shows are concocted by millionaire CEOs to line their pockets and sold to audiences as harmless fun. But there is no denying the inherent harm that comes from public humiliation, not to mention the cultural acceptance of the personas who carry on to dominate public discourse, such as Fear Factor host Joe Rogan, whose hit podcast spreads toxic masculinity and misinformation on a daily basis, or, more famously, the walking nepotistic comb-over host of The Apprentice who went on to become the President of the United States based on what largely felt like a bored child’s social experiment.
What Cheap Thrills examines is the American culture of gross fascination — our inability to look away from the carnage of a car crash. Colin and Victoria don’t need to be entertained, they want to be entertained. They see an opportunity to pit two men against each other through methods of bodily harm and ignominy. Craig’s first big score is $200 from punching a bouncer in the face, but the result is his own railing by the profoundly more capable fighter. Colin has the men pissing on one another, shitting in a neighbor’s house (within view of a child) and eventually toying with the idea of dismemberment, and worse. All the while, the phantom chants “be a man” and “real men would” echo in Craig and Vince’s ears.
At the beginning of Cheap Thrills, Vince offers to give Craig money to help him out of a bind, but throughout the degressive nature of the night, the men take to bartering for their chance to wager a pinkie. Their friendly interactions transform into violence and the exchange of emotional blows, resulting in Craig criticizing Vince for the man he became, calling him a loser, all the while holding on to the belief that he is above Vince in rank, despite the shameful depths his own life choices have relegated him to plunge.
Pitting misfortunate people against one another in vicious confrontations or contests for the enjoyment of the wealthy class has been a theme explored in many films and TV shows, most recently done to great effect in Squid Game (2021). However, there is great irony in the tragic tale told within Squid Game, wherein desperate people are given the “opportunity” to volunteer for a deadly game with a huge payoff, and the social impact the show has made. Namely, the occurrence of Squid Game parties thrown by celebrities in their multi-million-dollar homes, dressing up as both the wealthy masked spectators and those who participate. In Squid Game, like in Cheap Thrills, there is the illusion of choice, the players are told they can leave at any time — even after Vince attempts to rob Colin, he and Craig are given the choice to leave and stop the game — but in all reality, the directors of the game know that there is no life for the players to return to. Desperation is the trammel that shackles these people to their fate. Craig believes that returning home to his wife without a solution to their eviction will render him more helpless and impotent than relegating himself to becoming a dancing monkey for Colin and Victoria. Vince sees his life as already plumbing the depths, so what is the harm in falling further down in the pursuit of money?
The tragedy of Cheap Thrills is held in stark contrast to the unfounded belief in the “American Dream.” For Craig and Vince, their salvation lies in the hands of Colin, whose box full of money, a mere drop in the hat for him, is the key to a better life. No matter who is considered smarter or tougher, Craig and Vince are equal in their fear of being anything less than what they think men should be. It doesn’t matter that Craig’s wife would likely be understanding of their position if she knew of it. He doesn’t give her the chance to help find an answer, to work in partnership, because in his mind the man is the provider. Instead, Craig chooses to pull himself up by his bootstraps through surging brutality, pushing the boundaries of his humanity to a darkness from which he will never return.
There is nothing wrong with a man wanting to provide for his family. The truth of the matter is that people often feel compelled to act outside of the perceived moral code of society due to desperation. The villains of Cheap Thrills aren’t Craig and Vince, though they are men who display immoral and abhorrent behavior. It is Colin and Victoria who deserve judgement, as they choose random strangers as victims — two men who at first glance are connected to one another with a kind of affectionate camaraderie and see an opportunity to stave off their boredom for a night.
Toxic masculinity is an effect of a societal narrative that was never in the hands of people who find value in community and social interaction. In Cheap Thrills, the vitriol that spews from Vince toward Craig when he believes he is being stolen from would be better directed at Colin, who is excited to show off his power to Victoria. And to be clear, what is stolen is Vince’s opportunity to chop off his own pinkie after Craig barters down to a lowered price. The whole time the men argue with one another, one may wish that they would re-direct their rage towards Colin and Victoria. But such is the way of the world. Value is given to the richest man, power is a tradable asset, morals are non-fungible tokens to be exchanged then locked away. Cheap Thrills is a cautionary tale of the snake hidden in the grass, not of the lions fighting for a scrap of meat.
Jerry Sampson (@ladyscriptwrit) is a freelance writer, horror writer, film reviewer, screenwriter and editor. She writes for Ghouls Magazine, Rue Morgue, Scream Magazine and other horror sites. Jerry’s love for film and the horror genre leads her to explore and question the darkness that lies in the shadows of human existence.