On the same evolutionary ladder as Donnie Darko, Ghost World, The Rules of Attraction, and Art School Confidential, Cashback occupies the lowest, Cro-Magnon rung. Expanded from an already dubious 18-minute short that was nominated for an Oscar two years ago, this attention-grabbing wankjob is a showcase for writer-director Sean Ellis’s imitative visual style and contemptible opinion of the female form and function. The film doesn’t just look to appeal to the same straight-male demographic whose sexist tunnel vision explains their warm fuzzies for garbage like The Girl Next Door, it enshrines that callowness. If they taught the film in schools, the class might be dubbed The Art of Boosting the Self and Ragging on Women Through Tired Aesthetics.
Ellis ostensibly wrote this feature-length version of Cashback in seven days, which is at least one explanation for the material’s recklessness. Unable to sleep after breaking up with a girl who haunts his memory in breast-bobbing slow motion, Ben (Sean Biggerstaff) takes a night shift at a supermarket where he comes to the nonchalant realization that he’s able to stop time dead in its tracks. For Ben, this gift affords him the opportunity—nothing more, nothing less—to marvel at the immaculate detail of the female breast and clitoris (naturally without a woman’s permission), and for Ellis, Ben’s pointless ability justifies the character’s trite poeticisms, which recycle variations of the same whine: that his recent breakup left him with an impression of time feeling unhinged, oxygen being sucked out of rooms, and the world standing still—and so on and so on. This twerp may be an average painter, but he’s also a lousy philosopher (it’s a miracle a Matrix poster doesn’t hang inside his dorm room).
That the babyfaced Ben is so sweet, gingerly covering up a girl’s boobs with her halter top before returning the world to its normal speed with a clap of his hands, apparently makes him appealing, when in fact he’s just as skuzzily self-absorbed as his perpetually horny mates. (When he learns that someone else is also able to control time, the potentially interesting plotline is dropped before it goes anywhere, further confirming that the film’s clockstopping conceit is nothing but hot air.) There is a sense that Ellis comprehends his chauvinist attitude, which is why he reduces the men in Ben’s periphery to apes, but because their objectification of the female body is so upfront, it’s actually less offensive than Ben’s own: The difference between Matt (Michael Lambourne) and Ben is essentially the same between Booger and Patrick Bateman, only Christian Bale’s American psycho would kill you after trying to fuck you every which way.
Artistically, Ellis is torn, at once beholden to the adolescent pleasures of Ben’s buddies and Ben’s own presumably more highbrow interests. This is why half the movie plays out as a greatest-hits homage to the trick camera work of Danny Boyle, Godfrey Reggio, and Jonas Åkerlund (a useless shot of Ben falling onto a bed is a perfect example of how to squander an entire day of shooting; one ray-of-light shot accomplishes nothing but vertically flipping Koyaanisqatsi‘s DVD cover art), while the rest occurs as tacky fits of juvenilia, the nadir of which is a bathroom-mirror montage of the story’s motley characters getting ready for a party that ends with Ben’s best bud whacking off to a nudie mag—his bottle of lotion opportunely evoking the man sploog exploding below the frame. If this corny spectacle wasn’t so embarrassingly obvious, it might have been funny.
Woe is Ben. Someone this cute and seemingly innocent probably deserves everything, and Ellis gives him just that: His co-worker Sharon (Emilia Fox) gives him a kiss and breaks his sleepless spell, and a trick played on him by Matt and Barry (Michael Dixton) advances rather than deters his future as an artist. That any gallery would consider the boy’s derivative art a triumph seems as absurd as anyone praising Ellis for jumping on the Boyle bandwagon years-too-late. But there is a crucial difference between Ellis and his hero: Boyle is no misogynist. Even when the women of Cashback aren’t being stripped of their clothes, the film still denies them authority, as in condescending shots of women reduced to exploding volcanoes of emotion, the sound dropped from the film’s soundtrack. To Ellis, they are like dogs: Because men are unable to reason with them rationally, they must be taught by example—hence the purpose of Ben’s art show. They come around to his charms, but will Cashback‘s fans come around to Ellis’s vile worldview?