Overview: An already desperate Detroit landlord finds himself in an unimaginable predicament. Filmbuff; 2016; 91 Minutes.
Hello, Detroit: Detroit is in bad shape. That is not a descriptor of Cash Only’s setting, but a real life statement of fact known by any attentive American. This great city, once an icon of a uniquely American spirit and work ethic, is failing. The average viewer knows this, largely through images shown by TV, news media, and movies, shots of ruined stretches of dilapidated buildings and abandoned houses houses falling inward. Director Malik Bader and Writer Nickola Shreli (who stars as Elvis in the film), decline that apocalyptic imagery but measure the bleak current state of the city in more human terms.
Motor City is Burning: The camera of Cinematographer Christos Moisides seems most comfortable behind Elvis as he moves along the streets, the frame casually peering over Elvis’ shoulder to the next cross street but adjusting to observe his neighbors and friends, every day people going about life as best they can. As a landlord, Elvis Martini (carrying the name of another American icon who fell to ruin; a figurative fallen king) is marooned by his city’s economic depression, a man owed uncountable debts and owing larger debts. As Elvis spends the opening act attempting to collect from his debtors to pay his creditors, he becomes the perfect compass to navigate the flawed, complex credit-and-loan systems that have crumbled beneath Detroit. His tenants do what they can simply to keep a home, with distinctions of “good” and “bad” applied as worthless afterthoughts. Meanwhile, Elvis obsesses so intensely over re-establishing a flow of cash that he can not find time and energy to process basic and necessary human emotions. He struggles to come to terms with the recent death of his wife, he proves himself incapable of finding affection elsewhere. Everything, to Elvis, who is by all measures a dignified and good person at the start of the film (or at least shortly before the film’s events), is either a business transaction or an obstacle to a business transaction.
One Piece at a Time: Shreli portrays Elvis as a vulnerable, uncertain schemer driven by necessity, a man performing the empty dance of Reagan’s American Dream atop the nightmare black bruise of America’s post-recession. He is not the immediate killer or trained assassin character we commonly associate from film’s with comparable plot lines. When a desperate decision to collect what he is owed lands Elvis in an even more desperate situation (and his daughter in danger), the landlord responds with the only two options available: he surrenders his pride and begs for money from tenants and friends and and he becomes even more desperate and morally compromised. Notice how little thought Elvis puts into his final scheme, indicating that the scam was an idea already at the front of his mind.
Don’t Stop Believin’: Recently, a survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Board revealed that almost half of American households would not be able to come up with $400 dollars for an emergency situation. Another survey revealed that 1 in 3 adult Americans have no retirement funds saved. Zero dollars. Cash Only is a thriller built upon an anxiety that already too many Americans know and keep secret. The crime, anger, and violence of its characters warn of what long, dark roads might be traveled when the American spirit, with its inventiveness and will to survive, is turned back from the the bank door. If Elvis’ fight to save his daughter lacks the immediate tension of conventional revenge thrillers, perhaps it is because Shreli and Bader are not holding their storytelling knife to the audience’s nerve endings, but rather pressing it deep into the gut of their society. And when Elvis accepts his ultimate act of violence as his only hope, the jarring scene is something of a cultural bleeding.
Overall: Near the end of the film, Elvis finally gives in to his daughter’s request and he leaves a message on his late wife’s voicemail. At first, he attempts to remain optimistic in tone, but the cracks show. “I’m trying,” he repeats, “I’m trying so hard.” It’s a mantra that too many people have had to learn in modern America. We’re all trying. And that’s what makes Cash Only so terrifying, haunting, and necessary.
Featured Image: Filmbuff