Directed by: Ramin Bahrani.
Written by: Ramin Bahrani and Amir Naderi & Bahareh Azimi.
Starring: Andrew Garfield (Dennis Nash), Michael Shannon (Rick Carver), Laura Dern (Lynn Nash), Noah Lomax (Connor Nash), Clancy Brown (Mr. Freeman), Tim Guinee (Frank Green).
Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes opens with its best scene – a single take wonder, opening on a shot of a bloody bathroom, where a man lies dead of an apparent suicide by gunshot, as the camera than follows Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) through the house, and then outside, where he dismisses a cop who wants information about what happened, and callously just walks away – as the man’s distraught wife and children look on. It’s a killer opening scene – and sets up everything we need to know about Carver. The year is 2010, and Carver is a realtor, who is making more money since the housing crash of 2008 than he did before – now, instead of putting people in homes, he has been hired by the banks to evict them – which is what he was doing at that man’s house when he committed suicide. As Carver will later explain – correctly – he isn’t at fault for the housing crash. He was neither a home owner who took out a mortgage nor a loan that they couldn’t afford and ended up defaulting, nor was he a bank who damn well should have known that the people they were giving loans to couldn’t handle them. Carver may be a greedy asshole – a man gaming the system for all he can get. But he’s not responsible for the mess – no matter how many people he throws out of their homes.
99 Homes is very much a Wall Street for the housing crisis. Like Oliver Stone’s 1987 film, the most memorable character is one who is greed incarnate – this time, Michael Shannon’s aforementioned Rick Carver, but like Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko, Carver is actually a secondary character to an innocent, naïve lead who gets corrupted. This time, that role is filled by Andrew Garfield, playing Dennis Nash, a construction worker, who is a single father, living in his childhood home alongside his mother and son, who gets behind on payments to the bank, and has his house repossessed by Carver. Nash is a good angry – but he’s pissed. He is also good at construction, and Carver needs someone like him to do jobs on all the houses he’s kicking people out of – and not in a position to turn down money, Nash takes the job. And gradually, Carver gets Nash in deeper into his world – showing how he scams the government for excess money, and other shady things. Soon Nash is doing evictions himself – and if he’s ashamed of what he’s doing, that shame is washed out by the money.
Shannon is every bit as great as Carver as Michael Douglas was as Gordon Gekko – he is even given a speech that may not be quite as catchy as “Greed is Good” – but it’s just as true – “America doesn’t bail out losers, it bails out winners” he tells Nash at one point, which of course is true. It’s like anything else – if you owe the bank a few thousand dollars, they’ll just repo your stuff – owe them a few million, and they arrange something with you pretty quick. The great thing about Shannon’s performance is that he doesn’t play Carver as a one-dimensional bad guy – many of his arguments actually do make a fair amount of sense - just because he’s a dick, doesn’t mean anything that happens is his fault – until, of course, he crosses the line into actually breaking the law, and drags Dennis along with him. Even there though – in the one case that the movie returns to again and again, and leads to the finale of the movie, it isn’t that the homeowner is actually right – just that a technicality should work in his favor, and doesn’t – because Carver is gaming the system.
Garfield makes a fine audience surrogate in the film – and it’s nice to see him as something other than Spider-Man. It wasn’t that long ago after all when Garfield was the promising British actor from Never Let Me Go and The Social Network (both 2010). His role isn’t as demanding as Shannon’s – but he’s very good in it. Laura Dern is also good as his mother – although Dern is such a good actress, I really wish a director would give her more to do other than play the main character’s mother.
The film was co-written and directed by Ramin Bahrani – a favorite of Roger Ebert, who championed his first three films – Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo. Those three films – the first two made with non-professional actors, the last with largely unknown actors, were about people in America on the outside looking in. He followed those up with his bid for the mainstream – At Any Price – with Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron, which I believe was an honorable effort to translate his passion subjects into the mainstream – just one that failed to do so. With 99 Homes though, he gets the balance right – and has made his most entertaining film to date, but one that still has the same message about America being broken – and people being left on the outside, looking in at the American Dream that they have no chance of getting.
The final scenes of the movie are really the only moments where the film steps wrong (well, there may be a line or two of dialogue earlier in the film that is a little on the nose). In those final scenes, it seems like Bahrani is trying to up the tension another level – to end the movie with a tense standoff that wasn’t really needed. In some ways, I wonder if he just wrote himself into a corner, and didn’t know how to end things. Like Stone’s Wall Street, the movie ends with a note of phony uplift – a feeling that those who deserve it are going to be punished, and that good prevails. I’m not sure Bahrani believes this ending – after all, his own movie has already pointed out that Carver isn’t the reason any of this is happening – but perhaps it was needed just to wrap everything up in a tidy little bow. It doesn’t fit the rest of the film – that has a much more clear eyed, cynical and believable vision of capitalism in America.