For most people, debt can lead down an anxiety-ridden and destructive path. Oftentimes it can accumulate to a point that making any type of attempt to pay it off, even if it’s through genuinely honest and hardworking means, becomes pointless. With debt comes interest, and with interest comes even more debt. Debt creates an inescapable and painful cycle that can burden and consume a person’s entire life for years, if not decades. The inescapable cycle of debt is the central theme of the film Cash Only, one of the most convincingly gritty indie movies of 2016.
Originally making its world premiere at the 2015 Fantasia Film Festival, Cash Only is director Malik Bader’s third feature film, and much like his 2006 movie, Street Thief, which was a smartly-written and well paced crime thriller, Cash Only presents itself as yet another shining example of the amazing things that are currently being done within the crime/noir sub-genre.
The film follows the colorfully named Elvis Martini (Nickola Shreli), a morally flexible Detroit landlord burdened by debt and the countless stresses that come with it. Along with the impending foreclosure of his apartment building, Martini is behind on payments to his adorable nine-year-old daughter’s school and is in big debt to local loan sharks. Though as hopelessly miserable as his situation is, he discovers a bag of cash in the apartment of one of his evicted tenants. Using the money to pay off his debts, his actions set off an unintended chain reaction that finds himself and his daughter in terrible danger.
It’s due in no small part to Shreli, who also serves as the film’s screenwriter, that Cash Only remains tense and thrilling throughout. Though Elvis is far from being an innocent bystander caught in an awful situation, Shreli’s performance as Elvis consistently remains likable. The desperation that he imbues his character with is all too familiar, and even before his circumstances begin to endanger himself and his daughter, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for him. Even during the earlier scenes in which he tries to collect rent from his tenants, all who are equally desperate in their own ways, perfectly illustrates his personal frustration and self-loathing.
Along with Shreli’s grounded performance, Bader effectively creates a real sense of urgency throughout the film’s speedy 90-minute running time. The opening scene in which we see Elvis running back to his home is effectively nerve-wracking, and though Bader uses a healthy amount of shaky cam during this scene, it works well in this case, and gives you a better sense of the distress that Elvis is feeling.
The film’s dialogue and supporting performances also drive home the unsentimental and frigidly cold world that Bader and Shreli have created. Don’t go in expecting an excessively long monologue during the film’s violent and bloody climax when the Albanian gangsters come to collect the money that their owed. Every word and action propels the story forward, leaving nothing feeling inauthentic.
In a season that’s often dominated by big budget blockbusters and raunchy comedies, Cash Only serves not only as a nice cinematic palette cleanser for audiences wanting to see something a little darker and more vicious, but a reminder that the summer movie season offers much more than just explosions and repetitive dick jokes.
Arbitrary Rating: 9 out of 10 stacks of ill-gotten cash.
Cash Only is now in select theaters and is available on VOD.