99 Homes Review

(3.5 STARS)

Ramin Bahrani is perhaps the quintessential maker of American films working today. That isn’t to say he’s the best filmmaker this country has to offer — great, yes, but not on that level yet — but rather that no one crafts movies that tackle aspects of our national tradition with such precision and love. From the bittersweet stick-to-itiveness of Man Push Cart to the spiritual and modest hopefulness of Goodbye Solo and even to the mostly misguided but still occasionally potent At Any Price which saw Zac Efron and Heather Graham get it on in a grain solo, Bahrani’s m.o. usually involves dissecting “the dream,” where it went wrong for certain men and women, and how badly they want to get it back.

That’s on full display in 99 Homes, Bahrani’s latest, but his outlook is far gloomier and angrier than in films past. There’s a fire in this one’s belly about the predatory nature of, well, America. Telling a story about two men who repossess foreclosed Florida homes in both legal and illegal ways, Bahrani is pessimistic about the stars and stripes for arguably the first time in his filmmaking career. The results are engrossing, infuriating, and absolutely fascinating to watch unfold.

Andrew Garfield stars as Dennis Nash, a construction worker who doesn’t work quite often enough (not by choice) to properly care for his son, Connor (Noah Lomax), and mother, Lynn (Laura Dern). They fall behind on their mortgage payments, and slick Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), a real estate mogul who owns much of repossessed Orlando, evicts them in the name of the unseen but often derided “big banks.”

They move into a motel that’s populated by families in similar situations — some of whom have been there for several years — while Dennis tries to find a steady stream of income. He finds that through Carver, who first hires Dennis to literally clean up a stinking pile of shit in a home he was ready to claim as his own. Dennis’ willingness to basically do anything at any time for his boss moves him up Carver’s food chain, and soon, the young man is conducting most of Carver’s evictions for him. He’s earning more money than he ever thought he could, but the work — especially Rick’s ambitious plan to claim 100 homes from a rival — is sucking the life out of him.

The film is fictional and tries to be exhaustive in its examination of the American housing crisis of five to eight years ago, so it can’t help but feel a bit emotionally manipulative at times. Thankfully, Bahrani’s filmmaking style during his most charged-up scenes is smart. He steps back when Dennis and his family are being evicted, or when Dennis evicts an old man without family, friends, or a place to go. His camerawork isn’t showy, and the film’s thumping good score is more or less muted. The end result are more than a few truly hypnotic and absolutely moving extended scenes.

Bahrani (who also wrote the film) does a good job at capturing the ins and outs of the American housing crisis from all angles. No one — not even Rick — is ever painted as 100 percent guilty or innocent, legal or illegal, when it comes to their actions on the housing market. Even the men and women who are losing their homes, we’re reminded, often lived outside their means and should have known better. One family, we’re told, kept up with their payments for 20 years but decided they wanted a screened-in back porch, so they refinanced and fell behind. We see this in Dennis, who simply wants to get his old house back, but as he comes into more money, he starts promising his son a pool and all sorts of other luxuries that a prudent purchaser — nevermind someone who went through a foreclosure already — would or should avoid. Simply put, Bahrani does an excellent job showing us how living outside one’s means became an epidemic.

One of the film’s faults is that he doesn’t show enough. It’s not a major problem, and it’s definitely symbolic of the type of filmmaker Bahrani is, but to call it a parable would be misguided. There’s nothing unsaid in 99 Homes. It’s a fierce polemic, and it works tremendously on those terms, but at times it has the feel of a film that doesn’t have complete confidence in its audience to figure out its thesis.

The acting is exemplary across the board. Andrew Garfield is as good as he’s been in anything outside of The Social Network. His desperation is palpable, as is his internal moral conflict about his newfound success. Michael Shannon is actually more restrained here than he’s been in most other films recently, but his persona is one that serves the character of Rick well because he seems like someone who’s capable of firing off a few rounds from that pistol he carries around his ankle if someone pisses him off enough.

Bahrani also finds extraordinary character actors to fill even the smallest roles in the film’s cast. From the cops assisting Rick and Dennis with evictions to the men and women being evicted, everyone plays his or her part to perfection. It almost feels as if they’re amateur performers cast because they went through this ordeal in real life — like Jason Reitman did with fired businessmen and women in Up in the Air. Their stellar work gives 99 Homes an authenticity that’s crucial to its overall impact.

After At Any Price, I worried a little for Bahrani. That was his first step toward major studio filmmaking with a cast of stars, and it fell really flat. Here, he rebounds spectacularly and reminds his audience and fans why he’s such an essential and unique voice in filmmaking today. The American way of life isn’t something many directors focus almost exclusively on, but Bahrani is concerned about it in its many incarnations, as well as why we cling to it, how it fails us, how it’s changing, and why that’s frightening. I’m grateful to have that voice in the crowded cinematic marketplace, and even more grateful when it speaks with as much clarity and passion as it does in 99 Homes.

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  1. Pingback: Reviews: 99 Homes (2015) | Online Film Critics Society

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