At some point in the past decade, the city of Detroit became cinematic shorthand for desperation. It Follows (and its less renown Detroit dystopian sibling Lost River) mined that for horror, showing a Detroit out of sync with time, plagued by unknown shadowy assailants, utilizing the city’s naturally empty streets and rundown spaces to induce anxiety and claustrophobia. In the new indie crime film Cash Only, Detroit once again stands for desperation, but it’s not anywhere near as empty, instead it’s presented as a close community of equally hopeless people, all running short and long cons on one another to stay afloat, all fully aware that the city will devour them before long if they don’t get out. And Elvis (Nickola Shreli, who also wrote the screenplay), the self-proclaimed “king of low life tenants” at the heart of it, is the most hopeless of them all.
A basically amoral landlord who hit rock bottom after losing his wife and home to a questionable arson incident, Elvis is less of an anti-hero than a total fuck-up. At the start of the film, Elvis owes a low tier loan shark and the bank significant sums of money, which is an even bigger problem once you realize most of Elvis’ tenants seem to pay him in trade, be it pot, babysitting or sexual favors. For the bulk of the film’s run time, Malik Bader is content to treat Cash Only as a grimy, street level view of off-the-radar Detroit living, following Elvis around as he hassles his tenants and tries to figure out how to take care of himself, his daughter and the apartment complex he oversees. Bader favors handheld shots that give Cash Only a feverish intensity even when nothing is really happening, leaving a number of the static interludes to Elvis’ voyeuristic overseeing of his tenants on a lo-fi security monitor. Most of what Elvis sees is boring or unremarkable and Bader treats the narrative the same way, allowing the moments of violence and anxiety that do arise to strike with more potency.
You can draw some parallels to the work of the Dardenne Brothers, particularly their desperate crime masterpiece L’enfant, but Cash Only has a kineticism that feels relatively unique in the world of urban indie films. The oddball characters that populate the edges of the movie also allow it to stand out and they frequently overshadow the somewhat blank frustration that defines Elvis. Most of Elvis’ tenants and associates are Albanian immigrants, and the film comments on the double stacked otherness of living in a run down yet iconic American city as it is being forgotten by the rest of the nation. One of the most memorable scenes directly confronts this, as Elvis checks in on a new gay tenant and asks him why “his people” are moving to the neighborhood. The tenant initially asks “You mean homosexuals?” but Elvis clarifies that he means people from the suburbs and hipsters in general. Elvis doesn’t treat this looming gentrification as a threat, but as an opportunity to make money, to stop dealing with the “low lifes” who nonetheless function as his only friends and the only people willing to support him, even as they insult him constantly.
Bader clearly never wants the viewer to treat Elvis with pity or sympathize with him, as almost every issue that has brought Elvis down is his own doing. Elvis’ chief problem is that he thinks he is better than the people who live in his building, whether it’s the harmless pot dealer living in the basement (played by Bader himself with ample charisma and humor) or the old men gambling in the community center. So when the movie makes an incredibly dark turn in its final third, it’s tempting to outright hate Elvis for the awfulness he has brought down on his tenants and his own family, and almost as tempting to hope he is finally put out of his misery.
Cash Only struggles especially hard to balance style and realism in this section of the film, mostly due to the cartoonish idiocy and shortsightedness Elvis displays, but there’s no denying the finale packs a punch. Shreli is at his best here, displaying Elvis’ love for his daughter as well as his heartbreaking awareness of how responsible he is for all the danger she is in, and it’s to Bader’s credit that the film doesn’t let Elvis off the hook, even as it provides him with an epiphany of sorts. Bleak yet deeply human, Cash Only is the rare crime work that feels lived in instead of slightly removed and makes a strong case for Malik Bader as an urban auteur with a promising future.
Cash Only will be released on VOD and in select theatres tomorrow, May 13th. Check the film’s Facebook page for more info.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.