Cash Only, 2015.
Directed by Malik Bader.
Starring Nikola Shreli, Stivi Paskoski, Danijela Stajnfeld, and Malik Bader.
In this gritty Detroit-set thriller, Elvis Martini (writer-star Nickola Shreli, in a gripping performance) is a single Albanian father and landlord trying to do the right thing. But since he’s in debt to both bookies and his daughter’s school, Elvis needs to come up with some serious money fast. Chicago director Malik Bader delivers a riveting and assured genre film, complete with rich cultural details and shockingly gruesome imagery.
Not everyone in the world committing crimes is necessarily a bad person, but rather a product of the society surrounding them. This goes for Elvis, a somewhat tortured soul (after the tragic death of his wife) who is attempting to provide a healthy life for his young daughter. The only problem is he’s a landlord who isn’t getting much respect from his tenants, which isn’t very good because he seems to owe cold hard cash to quite a few people.
Before morphing into your standard conventional film where the hero must rescue his daughter from bad guys after barking up the wrong tree, Cash Only is admirably interested in exploring this hectic and rough street lifestyle of a man trying to make a living in the not-so-nice neighborhoods of Detroit. It’s a very character driven study centered on Elvis and his desperation to raise the money needed to repay debts, even more seriously once his daughter is abducted by a dog-fighting gangster kingpin.
One reason it works so well is due to the gritty realism of the world on display. During the Q&A held after the screening at the Chicago International Film Festival, writer Nickola Shreli mentioned that much of the narrative comes from real life experience as a landlord. This authenticity is also boosted thanks to his fine performance portraying Elvis, additionally to penning the script. Hopefully this strongly charismatic and ferocious performance will get him noticed and cast in bigger projects; there’s action star radiating from Nikola Shreli.
Director Malik Bader also delivers a supporting cast of memorable tenants, most notably a marijuana dealer named Kush with a huge pot farm in his basement, which he also stars in the movie as. Kush often wears ridiculously over-sized headphones and enjoys dancing around shirtless while tending to his crops, and is generally quite an amusing character to provide some lighthearted comedy. Elvis also likes to go around attempting to collect money with his cousin, coming into contact with citizens of various race and sexual orientation for some more comic relief. It sort of makes being a landlord appear fun in a sort of goofy yet serious way, despite the obvious disrespect from some of the more deadbeat citizens that comes with the nature of the job.
Unfortunately, Cash Only doesn’t really delve into the more emotional and serious aspects of its backstory. When it is revealed exactly how Elvis’ wife died, it’s clear viewers are intended to have mixed feelings regarding his character, but none of that really matters because the movie would rather overlook this in favor of painting him as simply a guy trying to make do with the cards he has been dealt. It also makes the final scene of the movie come across disingenuous; not enough time is spent exploring the events and aftermath of his wife’s death to make the monologue heavily impactful. This is moderately mitigated however by frequently showing Elvis do good humane deeds and caring deeply about his daughter.
As for the genre shift in the third act, that’s more of a positive or negative depending on what you’re wanting out of the film. The kidnapping allows for the filmmakers to show a lovingly desperate side of Elvis that is determined not to lose anyone else in his life that he loves, but it also makes for something incredibly predictable and formulaic. Think of an amateurish version of Taken (which is already average), and replace special agents with street thugs, all with a hypnotic, catchy industrial rock reminiscent original score.
There are also some ineffective editing decisions, such as showing his daughter still alive trapped in a cage somewhere way before the beginning of the inevitable rescue. It outright tells audiences that she is alive without creating much suspense for the face-to-face finale. The same goes for a few more scenes towards the end of the film that end up giving away more of how the finale will unfold, when so much of it can already be seen coming from miles away. This is mostly the result of the filmmakers admitting there were rewrites on the script and that the movie did evolve into different things over time, but what’s most important is that the movie does feel cohesive and purposeful despite the scattershot narrative.
Still, the overall atmosphere of Cash Only coupled with its engaging outlook on street life landlord-ing make for a mostly effective combination of character exploration and explosive action, alongside personalities that are grounded in reality. Cash Only also has a gloriously bloody scene in its final moments that best summarizes the mentality of its showcased lifestyle; do whatever you can to get by and survive.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder – An aficionado of film, wrestling, and gaming. Follow me on Twitter or friend me on Facebook