'Cash Only': Fantasia Review

Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival
A tense crime film augmented by persuasive local color.

A landlord whose tenants are all deadbeats struggles to pay his own debts.

An in-too-deep crime picture whose Detroit setting is secondary to the insular community of Albanian immigrants struggling to make a go of things there, Malik Bader's Cash Only is one of the more convincingly gritty indies to hit fests in several seasons. Making his screenwriting debut, lead actor Nickola Shreli crafts his own vehicle from a world he appears to know well, playing a morally flexible landlord whose debts are about to get the best of him. His more than credible performance will be key in attracting attention beyond the fest circuit, though some surprisingly vicious action toward the end is sure to win fans at genre-specific events such as this.

Shreli plays the colorfully named Elvis Martini, who two years ago lost his wife in an accident which has piled a heap of psychological baggage onto the now-single dad. He owns a tiny dump of an apartment house but is in the final stages of foreclosure, his mortgage having taken a back seat to a $10K debt to a local shark.

Elvis's own relationship with money gives him a kind of beleaguered sympathy toward tenants who owe back rent, but that tolerance snaps when they don't even pretend to care about paying what they owe. After locking one woman out of her apartment (and taking care of the neglected child she left there alone), he discovers a cache of ill-gotten money and stupidly uses it to buy himself some more time.

Only in a film this sticky with desperation could Elvis fail to foresee how badly this will go for him; Shreli offers a coherent picture of how circumstances and character put blinders on the man, steering him toward each step that will worsen his plight. When his daughter is taken hostage by frightening debt collectors, he embarks on a last-ditch scheme that is sufficiently bright to have a chance at working long enough to save her, but certain to doom him once she's returned.

Moviegoers have seen no shortage of extravagantly nasty Eastern European criminals in the last decade or two, but the sadism Elvis eventually faces is more credible in this context, as is the sense of inescapable doom faced by an immigrant who hasn't been as cutthroat as his countrymen in efforts to carve out a piece of America for himself. "Elvis, Albanian hell is cold," one of those men warns at one point. For him, life above ground is not much warmer.

Production companies: Nickname Projects, Bardha Productions

Cast: Nickola Shreli, Stivi Paskoski, Danijela Stajnfeld

Director: Malik Bader

Screenwriter: Nickola Shreli

Producers: Ele Bardha, Nickola Shreli

Director of photography: Christos Moisides

Costume designer: Kimberly Leitz-McCauley

Editor: Matt Diezel

Music: Julian DeMarre

No rating, 88 minutes