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“It takes approximately 500 pounds to crush a human skull. But the human emotion is a much more delicate thing.” So says Ben Willis (Sean Biggerstaff), an aspiring artist in narration as we watch, in super slo-motion, his current girlfriend Suzy (Michelle Ryan) angrily breaking up with him, her voice muted, replaced by the haunted vocals of Vincenzo Bellini‘s Casta Diva.
It’s the chilling start of an unusual film, based on the Oscar nominated 17-minute short film of the same name that centers on Ben’s dreary, introspective examination of his life and love as he tries to move on after he’s left alone. He falls into a terrible spat of insomnia, and so, takes a job on the night shift at a local supermarket hoping to let time pass with something productive to do. Unexpectedly, at the market, he meets Sharon (Emilia Fox), a dour clerk who is pleasant, attractive, and also drawn to Ben. They begin with curious glances, then a mutual crush, and finally explore more.
Meanwhile, Ben grows bored with the actual work of the job and begins to imagine that he can stop time. In these “frozen” moments, he walks about the store free of any pressures of life. Not long after, his time-stops escalate. He is soon undressing the women now stuck like mannequins, but not for any untoward reason you might think. With extreme care, he uses them as models to draw in his sketchpad. He explains of his tireless fascination of the nude female form, how it started when he was a young boy when a Swedish boarder (Hayley-Marie Coppin) once walked past him from the shower to the bedroom in the total buff. It had profound impact. As an adult, his passion is more artistic than pornographic, and he dreams of making his art a career.
An interesting thing happens though. His daydreaming ability to stop time eventually becomes a reality. He is able to keep the world frozen as long as he wants, whenever he wants, wherever he wants. Naturally, he experiments with this incredible power, mostly to comedic effect, always keeping it local. But then he finds its uses more to his personality. It becomes his escape and eventually a haven.
Written and directed by Sean Ellis, Cashback is a frustrating film that works so well on so many levels but can’t seem to reach the height it aims for. There are several reasons why. First is the narration, which is persistent throughout and delivered with all the shoegazer melodrama the words require, but is, as is with nearly all narration, entirely unnecessary and distracting. That powerful opening sequence with Suzy for example would have been doubly so and more genuinely moving (and wholly obvious) with only the baleful operatic chorus and not a single word spoken. Much of the story could and should have gone on with just the viewer to decide what is being presented. Second is the amount of female nudity, including full frontal. Nudity has its place in film, and this is not an argument against it, but the level of female nudity presented her borders on gratuitous. It’s never presented as “sexy” per se, not is Ben even seen using these girls for anything more than his art, but as he disrobes beautiful “frozen” women in the store and commits them to his drawing pad, it feels uncomfortably creepy, even when it tries to be tender.
Increasingly though, the film gets a little bit better as it winds its way to a satisfying ending that is sweet and even a little magical, in a romantic sense. Ellis is well in control of the direction and does some truly great work with his camera, including an early, magnificent one-shot of Ben shifting from a pay phone to his dorm room bed that must be watched and re-watched a few times to truly appreciate. And that is the final frustration as the “how did they do that?” film techniques throughout that just doesn’t mesh well with the copious amount of flesh, unrealized story ideas, and several unlikable characters. A lovely piano score by Guy Farley boosts the mood but also feels like it’s in the wrong movie. All that sounds like enough to avoid this small film, but in fact, this is one that should be seen. The two leads are terrific and anyone with a bit of melancholy in them, or have gone through a bad break-up (who hasn’t?) will find much redeemable and even commendable in the story. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
Ben controls time. He has accepted this power and welcomes it in the long lonely nights at the supermarket, freezing the world around him so he can partake in his passion for drawing. He and Sharon have become closer, and they have come to find a commonality in heartbreak and wonder. Ben uses his ability beyond the market, stopping time wherever he goes, and he begins to think about what life would be like if everything was always on pause. He questions his decision to spend so much time in this strange world where he feels safe and untouchable. And that’s when learns that he’s not the only one. In one of his frozen moments, another person comes out of the stillness and runs away, which surprisingly doesn’t alarm Ben. He accepts it and even seems a little grateful. In fact, it inspires him to think if there was something he could do to invite Sharon into the experience.
At a big house party to celebrate his boss’s birthday, Ben runs into Suzy, is ex, and though he isn’t interested, she wants him back. She draws him close and kisses him just as Sharon coincidently comes into view. Sharon turns and heads for the door as Ben tells Suzy “no,” which instantly stops time. He then sees Sharon and realizes what has happened. He goes to her, her body completely still, and sits at her feet, thinking about what she saw, what she didn’t see, and how he could fix it. Time can be sped up. It can be slowed, and it can be frozen. But it can’t be reversed. What is done, can’t be undone. This is the burden of manipulating time.
Ben sits alone in this moment for two days, contemplating what to do, why things happen as they must, and the absurdity of ill-timed events. When he finally lets time progress, she storms out. He goes to her apartment, deciding the best thing to do is tell her the truth. In the background, softly, Bellini’s Casta Diva begins to swell again (just like the opening), and when Sharon answers the door, her voice is muted, her screams in super slo-motion. The circle is complete.
We all wish we could take back a moment; do it again and get it right. That’s the central conceit here, and the message is clear from the very first frame. We must go through what we create, good or bad. Time is relative, whether it moves fast when joy is in our hearts or interminably slow when we face the worst. Ben experiences time as his heart perceives it, through the fun, though the sad, through the anger and through the love. It doesn’t really matter if we accept if Ben is able to do what it seems he can. What matters is that Ben learns that time is the one true constant. We can trick ourselves into thinking that time is something we control, but it always moves forward, no matter what. How we fill the fast times and the slow times is what defines us, and we’re all searching for a person who can travel with us through those beautiful, frozen moments.