99 Homes

November 19, 2015
Michael Shannon in '99 Homes' (2014)
Michael Shannon in '99 Homes' (2014)

It must be a relief for Andrew Garfield to appear in a movie without the Spider Man outfit. In Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes even those fabled Spidey powers would be of no use against the unstoppable force of the Global Financial Crisis. In opposition to the black-and-white moral universe of the super hero film, in which an invincible champion in leotards saves the world from an evil menace, 99 Homes shows that the line between good and evil may be hard to discern and easily crossed.

Garfield plays Dennis Nash, a builder in Orlando, Florida, struggling to find work as the economic squeeze tightens. He is a single parent who shares a house with his mother, Lynn (Laura Dern) and young son, Connor (Noah Lomax). They have fallen behind on the mortgage repayments for their home and although Dennis is fighting for more time while he tries to raise the money, it’s a lost cause.

Even before we meet these characters the film has opened with an eviction sequence in which a householder commits suicide. The steely-eyed businessman who presides over this debacle is Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), a hardened real estate shark making a fortune out of the downturn.

Soon it is Dennis and his family who are receiving a visit from Rick and the men from the sheriff’s department, telling them their time is up. In a tense, gripping scene they are given two minutes to pack their belongings and leave. Next stop is a cheap motel, where they find themselves surrounded by a horde of refugees who have been similarly evicted.

When Dennis realises Rick’s men have stolen his tools, he goes to confront them. Rick is impressed by Dennis’s stubborn, fighting attitude, and offers him a job. In his predicament, the young builder can’t afford to knock back the offer. Gradually Rick takes Dennis under his wing, giving him more responsibility and the chance to earn enough money to buy back the family home.

Dennis soon finds himself issuing eviction notices to people just like himself. He knows he has entered into a pact with the devil, and can’t tell his mother and son what he’s doing. Yet the lure of the money is strong, as is the opportunity to halt his descent into the underclass. Working to secure a better life for his family, Dennis doesn’t want to think about the morality of his actions. He imagines he can live with contradictions that grow increasingly corrosive. His Faustian bargain with Rick is eating away at his soul, making him into the kind of person he once despised.

99 Homes is a powerful drama that combines slow-building suspense with Dennis’s internal struggle to reconcile the moral and psychological dilemmas of his new vocation. Rick acts as Dennis’s boss and confidante, telling him that America loves winners, not losers.

Rick has risen from a poor working-class background, and takes a completely amoral view of the world. When times were good he sold houses, but has had to adapt to changing market conditions. If that adaptation means pressuring poor people into signing over their deeds, it’s all part of the game.

Rick has become adept at using the law for his own purposes, but many of his scams are of dubious legality. He is a crook, but so compeletely shameless and level-headed one feels a grudging respect for his sagacity. He is the latest cinematic incarnation of the satanic businessman, pursuing his own version of the American Dream. These are the people who justify their actions with maxims such as “business is dirty”. They believe that if they don’t screw a dollar from their clients, someone else will.

It’s a magnificent performance by Michael Shannon, who plays Rick as a cold-hearted opportunist, but never makes him into a stage villain. Everything he does seems logical, almost inevitable.

Dennis can see the appeal of Rick’s philosophy, but can’t help identifying with the victims. He knows exactly what it feels like to have your home snatched from you at a minute’s notice; to have your belongings piled up in the street in full view of the neighbours. Having been given the task of inflicting the same pain, shame and humiliation on others, he knows how he appears in the eyes of the evicted.

In 2009 Ramin Bahrani was lauded by the influential film critic, Roger Ebert, as “the great new American director”. This was a big rap for a 34-year-old filmmaker, born in North Carolina to Iranian parents. With 99 Homes Bahrani has delivered on that promise with a movie that takes an unflinching look at the lives of ordinary Americans destroyed by corporate greed.

One thinks of a film such as Tom Hanks’s Larry Crowne (2011) about an average guy who loses his job because of the GFC. Where Hanks gave us an old-fashioned Hollywood fantasy of the ‘little man’ who overcomes adversity, Bahrani’s portrait of a bankrupt nation is darker and more realistic. The message is that financial bankruptcy leads to spiritual bankruptcy, with human solidarity being replaced by a ruthless struggle for survival in which there are no everyday heroes, only ‘winners and losers’. Or should that be predators and their prey?

99 Homes
Directed by Rahmin Bahrani
Written by Rahmin Bahrani & Amir Naderi, after a story by Bahareh Azimi
Starring Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, Noah Lomax, Tim Guinee, Clancey Brown
USA, rated M, 112 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 21st November, 2015.