What is colder, Albanian hell or Detroit in winter?
Elvis Martini sits rather uncomfortably in the middle of both over the course of a few days where his world spirals out of control. He has the courts breathing down his neck for monies owed in an arson attempt gone horribly wrong, he has the church holding its hand out for educating his young daughter Lena, and he has half a dozen dead-beat tenants in his crumbling low-rise who will not pay their rent while the bank is about to foreclose on the building.
And things are about to get much, much worse. (As the Serbians enter the mix.)
Not since Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher has a low level criminal gotten himself in over his head in such short order. And like that gritty mid-1990s Copenhagen street film, things crackle and hum with energy born of desperation and pure survival instinct. Couple that with the spectacularly crumbling 21st century Detroit setting and the American-Albanian subculture sitting in the middle of it and you have, at least in cinematic terms, a quite an opportunity. Far more than mere homage director Malik Bader (Street Thief) and writer-star Nikola Shreli inject an emotional vulnerability to Elvis that offers an extra ply of resonance. His world, as ugly and low-rent as it often is, sticks with you long after the inevitable plotting fireworks pay off.
Between Cash Only, teen stalker picture It Follows, and Jim Jarmusch’s elegiac vampire digression, Only Lovers Left Alive, you cannot get more vibrant production value (and implicit metaphor) value than the current state of urban Detroit. For hip and exciting films, this is ground zero, folks. If the philosophy of ‘write what you know’ is in play here, and the seemingly effortless verisimilitude herein suggests that Nikola Shreli has seen a thing or two.
But the revelation here is his acting. He carries earnest-arrogance of Vin Diesel with a high-empathy underbelly that suggests his quick, short manner of speaking is barely concealing depth and character. And somehow he manages to rock a pair of pinkish track pants through much of the film with his dignity intact. No small feat, particularly in contrast when climbing into a vintage Mercedes Benz.
Elvis does bad things, really bad things, and not just petty criminal scams, lies and eventually murder, but also sloughs his daughter on one of his tenants to pursue meaning sex with another tenants fiance, or picking impotent drunken fights at one of the few friendly gatherings in the neighbourhood. And yet, you never leave Elvis’s corner, because world is shit, and he is so on the verge of sinking below the surface of the muck, you want to see his increasingly frenzied fight against it succeed.
The variegated meanings behind the title of Cash Only are revealed in drip-drip measure such that the full brilliance (and emotional intelligence) is not fully grasped until the film ends. When small-time criminal fiefdoms carve up city blocks (here based on ethnicity), and the guns and the drugs come out, all the safety nets of society are folded up and moved to more gentrified precincts, hard currency is the only currency.
One of Elvis’s only reliable tenants is a gay man who has actively decided to move into the building from the more sanity suburbs because of the cheap rent, and exciting instability of the neighbourhood. Between the old world Catholicism and homophobic Albanian brah-culture, one might question this particular line of thought, but the character actor, like all the colourful background characters, and the natural light, hand held cinematography, sells the idea so thoroughly that all facets of this time and place feel utterly real.
As a viewer, I can get behind the gay fellow’s desire, safe in my cinema seat, I wanted to stay in this world, explore the churches, garages, hair salons and poker-houses; perhaps even the sex clubs. With all the broken pieces and scattered threads surrounding Elvis and his daughter, I hope the collection raw talent behind Cash Only continue their story into a trilogy.