Cash Only: Between Rock City and a Hard Place, by Chase Beck
Detroit: Motown, The Motor City, Hockey Town; founded as a fort in 1701, it has since become the largest city in Michigan. Perhaps no city in America stands as a better example of the effects of the economic downturn than Detroit. Heavily dependant on the automotive industry, when the big three were outcompeted and forced to close local plants just to stay in business, everybody was affected. Today there are entire blocks of empty, decrepit houses and abandoned neighborhoods. Those still struggling to make it in Detroit often find themselves with difficult choices. Elvis Martini, landlord of a small set of apartments owes money to just about everybody. The city wants to take his property and local organized crime is threatening much the same. That is the set-up for Malik Bader’s Cash Only.
Written by, and starring Nikola Shreli,Cash Only comes across as a very personal tale of survival. Shreli plays Elvis Martini. Martini gives creeps a bad name. If you have ever been frustrated with a landlord yourself, you will be thankful you did not have to deal with this guy. The film seems to go out of it’s way to give Martini one disgusting character trait atop another. It couldn’t do more to telegraph a story of redemption if it tried. However, the path it takes to that redemption is unique and at times, captivating.
Due to some questionable life choices, Elvis is in a self-destructive, downward spiral of laziness, apathy, and overindulgence. He is a deadbeat and so are all of his tenants. When faced with an immediate need for money to pay back debts, he can not even get them to pay what they owe. Since the tragic death of his wife, the only positive influence on Elvis’ life is his daughter Lena, whom he had to take out of school because he doesn’t have the money to pay her tuition. It is another reminder for Elvis of how close he is to losing everything important to him. Spurred on by threats and ultimatums, Elvis gets off his couch and goes out to evict his one of his more late-paying tenants. As he does so, he finds a bag full of money which he uses to begin paying off his debts. For the first time in a long time, things seem to be going well for Elvis Martini, until he learns that the money was stolen and the original owner wants it back. Unfortunately for Elvis, the man is even more depraved than Elvis. Pushed to his limits, Elvis is forced to make money the only way he knows how.
The Detroit of Cash Only sucks the life and optimism out of everybody forced to live there. The film certainly does not paint the town in an optimistic light. I did however enjoy the depiction of the town as a melting pot. Elvis is Albanian. The film uses that detail well. Character dialogue often flows effortlessly between English and Albanian bringing with it a sort of casual authenticity. The characters themselves are complex and detailed enough not to be overly stereotypical. Director Bader’s character, pot-growing Kush was perhaps my favorite performance in the film. He brought a nuance and enjoyability to what otherwise could have easily devolved into caricature. Shreli also manages to imbue Elvis with a range of behaviors and emotions in both the writing and the acting, taking an otherwise insufferable character and transforming him into someone I was reluctantly rooting for.
Cash Only is not a perfect film. It has flaws. Elvis’ attempts at getting money seem, if I’m forced to word it generously, overly fortuitous. However, I felt that the climax and conclusion was sufficiently rewarding to me as an audience. I would have liked a slightly more optimistic portrayal of Detroit. I like to think of it as a city on the rebound, too strong and resilient to just fold up and die. Bader and Shreli seem to enjoy depicting it more as a disease infecting everyone who comes in contact with it. Not only that, but the conclusion to the film, while rewarding, seems to ignore all of the negative effects of Nikola Martin’s rampant double-dealing. Still, I admit I was impressed by the unique story and approach to what, in the last thirty minutes, turns out to be a tense, enjoyable crime thriller.