Mixed in with the recent wave of ultraviolent films like Eli Roth’s Green Inferno, and feelgood Capraesque fantasies like Nancy Meyers’ The Intern, there are occasionally a few really good American films that get released, but they don’t get much of a theatrical run. That’s because they’re independent films, and so they have to compete with the majors for theater screens. So, now playing in just a few cities, and breaking a bit wider in October – but still not “in theaters everywhere” as it should be – Ramin Bahrani’s brutal drama 99 Homes brings the current US housing crisis into sharp focus, offering Americans a bleak landscape made up of winners or losers, with no ground inbetween.
Michael Shannon absolutely inhabits the role of Rick Carver, a real estate broker who makes a fortune repossessing homes and then flipping them, without even the slightest vestige of humanity, decency, or compassion. Indeed, he throws away his most threatening lines with such utter indifference that it almost seems as if the camera isn’t there – Shannon takes up the entire screen with his presence. Utterly cold and calculating, Shannon’s Carver is the bottom-line nightmare writ large, as people cease to matter, and all that counts are financial transactions, taking advantage of others’ misfortunes, and the ruthlessness to exploit and ultimately destroy those who can’t fight back.
As David Edelstein noted on NPR in an excellent review of 99 Homes, “the most powerful morality plays work like drama instead of melodrama, so you’re not just on the side of the victim, you also see the world through the eyes of the oppressor. Wall Street did that, although Oliver Stone made the devil-mentor of the wide-eyed protagonist, Gordon Gekko, so charismatic that a generation of moneymen adopted him as a role model. Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes works on the same principle, with one key difference. The villain is Rick Carver, a predatory Florida real estate agent played by Michael Shannon, but the guileless apprentice he corrupts begins as one of his victims.
That victim is Dennis Nash, played by Andrew Garfield. Nash is a skillful builder, but the market has fallen out of the construction business and he barely gets work. He takes out a loan he can’t repay on the house in which he lives with his mom, played by Laura Dern, and his young son. Early on, he fights foreclosure before a brusque judge. Then comes a knock at the door: the sheriff and, behind him, Carver. In the scene that follows, a hand-held camera swerves with the characters as the mother cries out in grief and Nash pleads and argues. Bahrani presents this as a primal violation. Owning a home in the U.S. is hugely freighted with issues of self-worth. I found the scene so excruciating I had to get up and walk around the back of the theater.”
In an America in which 1% of the populace control 99% of the nation’s wealth, and apartment sales in Manhattan routinely list in the high seven-figure bracket, the middle class is being increasing squeezed out, and only those who have the education, and the skills to survive will prevail – and as 99 Homes makes clear, at the same time navigate through a wilderness of payday loans, indifferent social systems, and an increasingly detached citizenry, who just sit by and watch these things happen – as long as they’re happening to someone else. Shannon, who was so remarkable in the offbeat drama Take Shelter does some of the finest work of his career here, and director Bahrani, whose earlier films – such as the much admired Chop Shop (2007) – always have a cutting edge, also delivers – at least in my opinion – his most unrelenting work to date.