There are few recent non-Tarantino films that draw from such a comprehensive, patchwork assemblage of crime cinema as director Malik Bader’s Cash Only. While I know I’m prone to describing a film as a hybrid of other films (with, of course, the intention of letting you know what you’re in for), one cannot help but cross-compare when it comes to this guttural howl of a movie.
Blending elements of Mean Streets, Boston gangster fare like Gone Baby Gone, every film in Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Pusher series, Eastern Promises, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour and even the notorious horror flick A Serbian Film, Cash Only is a dark foray into one man’s quest to find his own morality, save his family and walk through hell and back in order to do so. That hell also includes a scene very reminiscent to one of the more oft-quoted Pulp Fiction set-ups. (And there’s your “if you liked this, you should watch these” paragraph.)
Unlike Scorsese and Tarantino, however, there is no slick style or tongue-in-cheek humor here. Any jokes are more out of that school of ethnic-enclave street wisdom that made Tony Siragusa one of the more enjoyable parts of 25th Hour, or made MC Slaine look wicked “authenticious” in The Town.
The film begins by introducing us to Elvis Martini (Nickola Shreli), a bald, strapping Albanian-American dude who looks like the lovechild of John Turturro and Juice from Sons of Anarchy. Elvis is a slumlord and single-father. Elvis is also in debt to everyone on both sides of the law in his crooked Detroit hood. (Kudos to this flick for not hitting us over the head with Detroitisms—what’s more important to the film’s identity is that this slum and its grind could exist anywhere.)
Elvis is also dealing with the fact that while burning down his house for insurance money, he forgot to check if his wife was sleeping inside. Thus the single-father thing…
I think it would be a stretch to call Elvis morally ambiguous. He’s generally a good dude with a good heart who just happens to have fucked up his family’s life in an unimaginably horrible way. (Enter Mean Streets Christian morality play.) And now, while dealing with that horror, he’s hit with the double-whammy of having to scam cash out of delinquent tennants so that he can keep both his hide and a roof over his daughter’s head.
The first half of the film is more of a character set up, introducing us to Elvis’ colorful acquaintances. These include a dealer named Kush (played by director Bader) who operates a massive basement growhouse in one of Elvis’ properties. Then there’s his guy the mechanic—another man with one foot in the Old Country and the other still well outside the American Dream. Then there’s the Euro-trash buddy whose fiance Elvis is schtupping on the DL. And then there’s the crazy call girl who Elvis scams for a massive wad of cash after spying on her through these creepy cameras he sets up in his tennants’ homes.
I never said Elvis was on the level.
The second half of the film jumps from a week of these characters dancing around each other in cash grabs to a rapid, 24-hour search for Elvis to come up with 25 Large. Let’s just say that everything is at stake, and if the first half of the film seemed slow, the second pays off big time. There’s also a climax borne straight out of hell, but I’ll leave the particulars of that experience up to the viewer.
I know that comparing any film to Mean Streets is a major declaration, and I’m not saying Cash Only at all lives up to that standard. But in the same vein that Scorsese went into Harvey Keitel’s hellfire-laced existential battle with Christianity and showed you the world of his nitty gritty neighborhood through a cast of lovable fuck-ups, the young director Bader ventures into very much the same territory—and with quite an effect, thanks in large part to the standout, naturalistic work of his lead.
Remember though… I also compared this to the Pusher Trilogy and A Serbian Film. So yeah, don’t expect a doo-wop ride through the quaint streets of old Little Italy. Because shit gets downright medieval on that ass in Cash Only.
GRADE: B / B+