Elvis Martini (Nickola Shreli) is a desperate man. Facing mounting pressure to repay large sums of money to this guy and that guy, and making no money from the property he leases, Martini’s life seems to be nothing more than a sequence of cons and illicit dealings. A bright spot punctuates the film with brief moments of respite in the form of his video-game loving daughter, but it’s a sad enough situation. Sadder still though, is the loss of his wife, which seems to hang over Martini like a storm cloud.
Cash Only, which is directed by Malik Bader (who also plays a pot-growing tenant, aptly named Kush) and written by Nickola Shreli (who plays Martini), drips with desperation. When confronted with his daughter’s abduction, Martini’s plans to rescue her are so nonsensical that any viewer would question his sanity. He’s not sane. He’s a man fueled by Marlboro Reds and the adrenaline of desperation.
The film is a conventional crime drama in theory and execution. Martini is the typical antihero; the fallen angel whose imperfections make for compelling tension. His innocent daughter provides the audience with hope that the cycle of crime will be resolved. The characters surrounding them are criminals to varying degrees; a tightly woven net of people feeding off each other’s bad behavior.
There’s another element to Cash Only that makes it a compelling watch. Shreli and Bader are clearly invested in their story and setting. The setting, in this case, is the Balkan underworld of Detroit, a city bereft of job prospects: the quintessential case study of modern American economic desperation. The Albanian community that Martini occupies is represented honestly, with the characters rendered unapologetically.
Yet, the film elicits sympathy. To imagine the characters coming to a new country, promised freedom, opportunity, economic security, and then ending up in Detroit, we begin to understand why this story is about them. It’s strikingly similar to the account of early 20th century Italian immigration. Disenfranchised and ethnically tight-knit, with political power out of reach, the only way out seems to be through crime. At one point, Martini tries to get money from a friend, who complains that he doesn’t have it because he used it to pay for his upcoming wedding. Normalcy and the struggle to live an honest life is the goal — crime, the reality.
Nickola Shreli plays the part of Martini well, and it could be due to his familiarity with the culture that the film portrays. His acting is emotionally honest, and his relationship with his daughter has a ring of authenticity. Their interactions are limited, but resonate with an undercurrent of love.
The film’s most unique angle, however, is not the crime drama at its core, but the portrait it paints of the aforementioned Albanian community. In a hypothetical list of the most represented ethnic groups in American film, the Balkans are, most likely, near the bottom. In Cash Only, characters switch between Albanian and English, refer to the old country, and celebrate with a roast pig. At one point, a character tells Martini that “Albanian Hell is cold.”
There’s a question of identity circulating throughout the film. Not wholly American, the various characters find themselves in a state of flux, clinging to their past culture amidst what will likely remain a foreign place. But for all the depth implied in the film’s rendering of the Albanian immigrant community, it’s still a crime drama. Unfortunately, that element falls a bit short.
The chief concern here seems to be a lack of distinction. There’s not much that feels fresh in the plotting of the film. Lovers of the genre will undoubtedly be fulfilled in watching the film’s capable handling of the generic conventions, but Cash Only is a fast and furious affair. Its greatest innovation comes in the originality of its setting, and that setting isn’t given much time to breathe. For the most part, the film is a fairly straightforward tale: grounded but constrained to established paths. It culminates in a bizarre and incongruous ending that throws off the balance of the film with a sudden and nonsensical blast of violence.
As for the film’s visual aesthetic, the naturalistic lighting and the gritty ‘handheld’ cinematography seem perfectly adept at capturing a dark snapshot of Martini’s life. Even though Cash Only doesn’t hit as hard as it could have, it pulls off being an entertaining and well-made film. Even though some questionable plotting choices throw the film off balance, it bounces back, like Martini would, and keeps on fighting. Cash Only may not reinvent the genre, but it’s worth watching the action unfold through a fresh set of binoculars.