99 Homes, film review: No home comforts in grim tale of bankruptcy and broken dreams

(15) Ramin Bahrani, 112 mins. Starring: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, Clancy Brown

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The Independent Culture

Ramin Bahrani's 99 Homes is like a cross between The Grapes of Wrath and Glengarry Glen Ross. Set in Florida in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, this is a modern-day morality tale that continually confounds audience expectations. It is about bankruptcy, foreclosures, forced evictions and broken lives. Its characters aren't beleaguered sharecroppers, as in John Steinbeck's novel, but newly homeless middle-class families, preyed on by banks and estate agents.

At the same time as it chronicles despair, the film also plays like a twisted variation on the typical story about the pursuit of the American dream. Its eminently decent hero, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a single father desperate to hold his family together, does some eminently despicable things. What makes the film so jarring is that we understand why and root for him anyway.

99 Homes begins in a matter-of-fact way with a suicide. A man about to lose his home has shot himself. His misery spells profit for the real-estate agent Rick Carver, played by Michael Shannon. Bahrani stages the opening sequence in bravura fashion, from Carver's point of view, with prowling camerawork and no cuts.

This is strictly business for the Gordon Gekko-like entrepreneur, who is utterly unconcerned that there is a dead man in the house. He works with cops, locksmiths and building contractors to secure the property for the banks, who now own it.

“Don't get emotional about real estate,” is Carver's mantra. Dennis Nash is next on his list to have evicted. Like almost every other home-owner behind on his mortgage, Nash has a “sob story”. He is, by turns, defiant, belligerent and then, finally, distraught as he realises that he is losing the family house he shares with his mother (Laura Dern) and his young son. “I need a bit more time,” begs Nash, but when Carver looms, grim reaper-like, on your doorstep, that means that time has already run out. You're given a few minutes to salvage your most valuable possessions while the removal men dump your furniture on the grass in front of your house. The whole grim pantomime is played in full view of the neighbours.

What makes Shannon such a fascinating actor is his habit of coming at roles from the angle you least expect. In The Iceman, he played a serial killer as a dedicated family man who made it a point of principle never to miss his daughter's birthday parties. In Boardwalk Empire, he was an upstanding and very priggish Federal agent who eventually behaved with as much cunning, corruption and violence as the gangsters he was investigating.

 

 

 

Here, Carver seems utterly ruthless but Shannon somehow manages to invest the character with pathos and at least a hint of a lost decency. He is behaving as he does because of what happened to his own father. “America doesn't bail out the losers” is one of his maxims, a justification for pursuing his own interests even when it means leaving homelessness, poverty and despair in his wake. He dresses sharply, smokes calmly on his e-cigarette as home owners rage around him. He seems blithely unconcerned by the misery of others as he pursues ever more ambitious property deals.

And yet Carver is hardly a contented figure in himself. He “flips” homes continually. He barely sees his own daughters, has no time for his girlfriend and wears a gun on his ankle to protect him from the rage of the families that he evicts.

Nash ends up striking his own Faustian pact with the real estate agent. Carver offers him a job, working on the houses that have been foreclosed. There is a tremendous early scene, with a very obvious symbolic undertow, in which he proves himself to his new employer by helping to clean up a house whose dispossessed owner has backed up the sewage in a final act of defiance.

You can't get dirtier work but, by taking on the job, Nash begins to salvage his own self-respect. Unlike the other homeless fathers cooped up with their families in cheap motels, he refuses to accept the role of victim.

The ironies multiply. Nash excels as the devil's apprentice, Carver's new right-hand man. He works very hard. Like his boss, he tries to steel himself not to be affected by the misery of the families he is evicting. Andrew Garfield is well cast. He has a likeable, everyman-ish quality, reminiscent of a young Henry Fonda. It just so happens that, in his attempt to salvage his home and livelihood, he has mislaid his moral compass.

We want Nash to succeed and admire him in his battle to reclaim the family home. We become as blind as he is to the sufferings of the families who can no longer make their mortgage payments.

The screenplay (by Bahrani and fellow film-maker Amir Naderi) subverts the tropes of the typical self-help story. It portrays a society in which the only opportunities for success are provided by the failures of others. This is a film without conventional heroes and villains. The behaviour of all the characters, from the defaulting home owner who makes his house a fortress, to the predatory estate agents who are trying to capitalise on his misfortune, is driven by circumstance.

99 Homes is largely set in suburban Florida. The houses which become its battlefields are often spacious and luxurious. There are no obvious signs of poverty and the sun always seems to be shining. Even so, the contemporary US that Bahrani portrays is every bit as lawless, corrupt and insecure as the frontier communities terrorised by robber barons in old Westerns. The courts, the cops and the property developers work hand in hand. That is what makes the film seem so chilling and finally so pessimistic.

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