In a desperate moment, a sleazy Albanian landlord crosses the mob and ends up in a mad scramble to beg, borrow, steal or grift thousands of dollars to save the life of his kidnapped daughter. And it all plays out on the mean streets of post-apocalyptic Detroit. Well, it’s not really post-apocalyptic, it’s just Detroit. But just like filmmakers in the ’70s epitomized New York City and Los Angeles as unbroken seas of pornography and sleaze, they can’t resist portraying the ruins of Detroit.
Writer/star Nickola Shreli, a second-generation Detroit native himself, plays Elvis Martini. When our story opens Elvis is setting his apartment building on fire for the insurance money, not realizing his wife is in it. Flash forward a couple of years, and Elvis is now a single-dad grappling with his guilt and barely hanging on to his (new) building, populated with a motley assortment of people voted Most Likely Not To Pay The Rent. (He also seems to have a house nearby that he rents out to a prolific pot farmer.)
The problems of the landlord are many, and Elvis’ problems are multiplied on top of that. The pot grower uses a lot of electricity, but is unsympathetic to the cost to Elvis, for example. Meanwhile, Elvis is collecting sex as the rent for another unit: The one occupied by his cousin and his cousin’s hot wife. (I was never actually clear on whether the cousin knew this was going on or not.) Another tenant, a non-Albanian woman is gaming the system to stay as long as she can without paying any rent.
The last proves to be the biggest problem as Elvis gets into her apartment while she’s gone, boxes up her stuff and kicks her out. He also takes a bundle of money he finds as back rent, never considering the possibility that the money doesn’t really belong to the tenant, but to, say, the tenant’s pimp or (hypothetically) the Albanian mob.
The good work done here is manifold: Shreli and director Malik Bader give us a (highly) flawed but not entirely unsympathetic character. Elvis is far from admirable. He is short-sighted, greedy, violent and god-forsaken. (One of his creditors is the nearby parochial school.) But he’s also tough, resourceful and has a good (if blackened) heart. Elvis’ hard life makes for compelling viewing, even on the shoestring budget. And the climax of the movie is gripping and harrowing, moreso than many other (far more expensive) films. The denouement is sort of phoned in, in a way that reminds me of Roger Corman’s old maxim “monster’s dead, movie’s over. Elvis makes such a mess out of his world, we needed to see the after-effects.
Still, it was darn good, if you’re in the mood for gritty Balkan fun.