A brutal watch that’s hard to tear yourself away from

François Delisle lets the bad times roll in his new film Ca$h Nexu$.

Lara Kramer and Alexandre Castonguay in Ca$h Nexu$

When I was a teenager, my father used to tell me that one day I would tell him he was an idiot and punch him just like he did his own father. That day never came — and is unlikely to come now, I think, as I’m at an age when punching a man in his 60s would be less of an acceptable form of rebellion than a criminal act. I don’t know if my dad is disappointed by this, but what I gather is that humans seem to assume that we will never get to decide which traits our children inherit from us. That’s one of the many strands that runs through François Delisle’s Ca$h Nexu$, an impossibly grim drama about inherited misery and the inevitability of disappointment within familial units.

Jimmy (Alexandre Castonguay) is a homeless junkie who sleeps in the streets with his anglo girlfriend (Lara Kramer), getting his fixes from the money she makes turning tricks. Even for a junkie, Jimmy remains barely functional; he’s constantly dope sick and out of it, living only for the next fix. Jimmy’s elder brother Nathan (François Papineau) is a heart surgeon working at the CHUM; he has an expensive condo and a beautiful girlfriend, Juliette (Évelyne Brochu), but he barely seems happier than his estranged brother. As it turns out, both men have been scarred by the fact that their mother walked out on them was Nathan was 13 and Jimmy was just a baby. They’ve spent their lives under the shadow of their father (Guy Thauvette), a rich but emotionally distant man now fighting a losing battle with emphysema in a mansion on the waterfront. A chance encounter between the two brothers sends them back into each other’s lives and into an emotional spindrift that’s been going on for decades.

“Cash nexus” is a Marxist term referring to the idea that, under capitalism, all human relationships can be boiled down to money. All of our interactions are transactional to some degree, and when they aren’t they’ll almost certainly lead to a transaction down the line. That’s true to some extent with Delisle’s film, though it has so much going on that boiling it down to a Marxist critique of familial relationships is short-shrifting it a bit. Both Nathan and Jimmy’s lives have been permanently shaped by their privilege: on one hand, Nathan feels he must work and live to preserve it, while Jimmy rejects it outright even if the thing that he does “dedicate” his life to requires capital to obtain.

More than a simple “two brothers on either side of the law” drama, Ca$h Nexu$ explores how trauma seeps through every crack of one’s life, whether you want to let it or not. It’s revealed fairly early on that one of the reasons Jimmy uses is that the high makes him hallucinate his mother; he sits and talks to her, waiting for the reason why she left as if it’s the key to unlocking what’s wrong with him. A lot of the interactions in Ca$h Nexu$ revolve around the unsaid: around what they can’t say to each other and what they’ve always wanted to hear from someone else, from the things that Nathan does that he hides from Juliette… but what it seems most concerned with is the weight (or lack thereof) of things we actually do say to each other. Promises aren’t kept, insults aren’t meant and hatred slips by wrapped in niceties. If Jimmy’s mother really told him why she left, would it make him less fucked up?

There’s a lot of stuff that’s difficult to watch in Ca$h Nexu$: piss, puking, rough sex, overdoses, a graphic abortion scene, forced oral sex etc. Other films would have worn that stuff like a badge of pride, like signposts toward a more real and gritty experience. Frankly, all that stuff that’s hard to watch isn’t what’s hardest to deal with in Ca$h Nexu$. They’re just minor signifiers in a tapestry of despair that’s hard to tear yourself away from.

As enamored as I am with the places this movie goes, I have to admit that I’m less taken with where it eventually ends up. For a film that traffics so much in the unsaid and the badly worded, its third act becomes particularly talky and prone to soliloquizing. Thauvette in particular spends parts of the third act clawing his way through the dialogue like he’s doing King Lear in Parc Lafontaine. The same goes for the film’s coda, a daring break from the dour realism of the previous two hours that doesn’t quite work as well as it should. Ca$h Nexu$ doesn’t exactly fizzle out, but it ends pretty far from where it started.

“Hope is like a cancer,” Jimmy says at one point — and this is months after he forcibly gives head to a hospital orderly in order to get his hands on a bag containing his dirty, soiled clothing so he can get out of there. Ca$h Nexu$ is a fairly brutal watch by any account, and Delisle brings an appreciably nuanced eye to what could be an absolutely punishing ordeal. Offering no tidy answers and a heap of raw pain, Ca$h Nexus isn’t exactly uplifting.  ■

Ca$H Nexu$ opens in theatres on Friday, March 22. Watch the trailer here: