Even before the daughter-in-peril storyline turns Cash Only into a lean, mean indie Taken, director Malik Bader (Street Thief) and screenwriter Nickola Shreli build a tense action film around a guilt-ridden man stuck in place. After the death of his wife in a botched arson, Elvis Martini (Shreli) stays in the close-knit Albanian community of Hamtramck (a small, working-class city surrounded by Detroit). He’s become a negligent landlord, with an apartment building in foreclosure, and a haphazard father to precocious nine-year-old Lena (Ava Simony).
Despite everything, Elvis views himself as basically decent, and Shreli locates that moral certainty at the intersection of the character’s contradictions. This zealously lapsed Catholic still sends Lena to parochial school, and while he may complain that his tenants take advantage of him, he’s more than willing to accept sex or drugs (director Bader plays a brilliantly loopy marijuana grower) in lieu of full payment. He could always hustle, but when the sadistic Dino (a terrifying Stivi Paskoski) kidnaps Lena, Shreli goes full Neeson, methodically upping Elvis’s capacity for criminality and violence.
Cash Only features many familiar action movie markers, but it’s distinguished by a raw energy and strong sense of place. Members of its Detroit crew worked on major studio projects lured by Michigan’s now-defunct film incentives program (including Shreli, his co-producer Ele Bardha, and cinematographer Christos Moisides), and their endeavor captures what outsiders miss: the density of viable neighborhoods and the tenacity of residents. Their Detroit is bleak and unforgiving, but also vividly and defiantly alive.
Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on May 13, 2016 by FilmBuff
First published in The Village Voice, 2016.
Cash Only is available on Netflix