Upon seeing the much talked about 2004 short Cashback a couple years ago, I was utterly blown away. I checked out Sean Ellis quickly after to see what was next on his slate. To my surprise, it was a feature length version of his brilliant short. I didn’t know what to think, how could he hope to enhance what worked so well in 25 minutes? How could he risk ruining the beauty and magic of what he had? Once I saw that the feature release was coming as part of Mark Cuban’s HDMovies/DVD/Theater deal, I knew I would have to see for myself what Ellis had done. To my shock, he not only kept the stunning visual flair and emotive compositions, freezing beauty and time, he enhanced it completely. The film Cashback is a pure work of art to be viewed with a gallery mentality. This is not a movie to be taken lightly, but a piece of art to behold with wonder and thought. It is a journey through the meaning of love and the beauty of everything around us.
Our story involves an art student named Ben who has just experienced a bad breakup with his first real girlfriend. The thoughts running through his head and the void that the departure has made in his life causes him to be unable to go to sleep. Not able to deal with the extras hours of torture, making him stew in the memories that were long gone, he takes a job working the night shift at a local supermarket. Why not get cash back for his traded extra time? While his co-workers deal with the monotony of eight hours by avoiding the clock, fooling around, or messing with the customers—“helping the ladies” is a hilarious game of theirs, with fantastic payoff at the end—Ben finds that his way to get through time’s sluggish pace is to stop it altogether. He freezes time and space so that he can spend it looking at the beauty that is reality. The still-lifes of life itself are there to be looked at if one takes the time and effort to do so. Being that the female form has always been an inspiration of beauty to him, he starts using the women customers, in suspended animation, as his models to hone his drawing and painting skills. Amidst everything, he and his co-workers take a journey together in life and its cyclical nature and run-ins with coincidence and fate. When Ben falls for his friend Sharon, his world opens back up and he sees what it is to truly be alive.
The plot is simple yet deep in scope. There are many ideas being put out there, but it is not the words of our characters that help express them. Ellis has chosen to give us a mostly silent film, where the visuals are the real impetus and force behind its progression. Told with voiceover throughout its duration, the audience is allowed to bask in the mesmerizing moments put to film. Between his wonderful transitions from present to past recollections of childhood, seamlessly panned over from timeframe to timeframe, to the living paintings walked through by Ben, to the breathtaking slow-motion sequences, you will be transfixed and unable to divert your eyes from the screen. His use of light and glares on the women he allows to fill the frame is amazing and almost every single second could be paused and put on display as photographic artwork. Some of the compositions and use of mise-en-scène are astounding. From the fearless framing of empty space while the focal point is just standing in the corner, to the use of the scene’s environment to create space, either Ellis or his cinematographer, or both, is a genius. I keep thinking of the moment Ben is drawing Sharon at the checkout line, the frame is 95% filled with the white of the back of his pad, only the tiny triangle of space in the top left corner allows his face to be visible.
There really is nothing aesthetically bad I can think of saying. Cashback is as visually stunning a film as I have ever seen, and coming from a first time director is all the more impressive. With all that said, though, the movie is definitely not for everyone. The prudish should stay away because there is a lot of nudity throughout. I would say that while almost all of it is tastefully done and likened to a gallery setting where nudes are the norm, it could still be uncomfortable for some unused to it being so prevalent. The female form is never really exploited here and never used to titillate. It is a fill-in for the beauty in the world that people just don’t take the time to seek out anymore. Each composition containing the curves of a woman’s body is a sight in its own right. Ellis had a vision and he nailed it completely.
All the acting is good as well, especially our leads Sean Biggerstaff as Ben and Emilia Fox as Sharon. They both film effectively and the silent moments of their faces emoting their feelings for each other only enhance the story rather than slow it down in pacing. All the supporting players are great also, adding some wonderful moments of levity and helping keep the movie’s tone from being too dramatic. Again, though, these characters are only vessels being led around to show us the love in the air; it is their actions that speak louder than words ever could. I don’t know whether Ellis refilmed the moments from his short or just used the original footage, but it all keeps the same aesthetic and feel. Those minutes are used almost completely in the first hour, which is surprising because the final act is so well done and cohesive with the start. The final scene at the gallery and outside is just plain gorgeous and puts a fitting conclusion to a masterpiece of style.