Fans of Ramin Bahrani’s earlier films will be surprised by 99 Homes – the director known for his observational, neo-realist style and work with non-professional actors had already begun to change his tack with At Any Price, which starred Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron as ambitious Iowa farmers. 99 Homes finds Bahrani well and truly departed from his earlier work, with Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield starring in this taut, unsettling and affecting thriller about the 2010 foreclosure crisis in Orlando, Florida.
The film opens with a murder-suicide, prompted by the imminent eviction of the property owner by Michael Shannon’s ruthless real estate broker Rick Carver, who is callous and flippant in reception of the news. Andrew Garfield’s Dennis Nash, an honest construction worker who (pointedly) builds homes, is also facing eviction, and after the swift dismissal of his case in court (a so-called “rocket docket”) he finds Carver on his doorstep with two sheriffs, and learns that he is trespassing on what is no longer his property. Nash, his mother (a hard-done-by Laura Dern) and his son are thrown on to the kerb in a relentless and uncomfortable eviction scene and move into a motel full of middle class families with the same story. Nash tries unsuccessfully to find work and, in desperation, goes to confront Carver and his men – instead, he is met with a job offer. Carver soon takes Nash under his wing and shows him the less-than-legal ways to stay afloat in a post-GFC world, with extensive cheating of the government at play. Nash just wants to buy back his family home but soon gets drawn into the lucrative but dangerous world of real estate brokerage and scamming, finding himself evicting families just like his.
There is a cyclical, ritualistic element to the film, and the way Bahrani presents the experiences of these people – from the rocket docket court scenes to the evictions, they play out constantly on screen with a horrifying predictability. As an audience, we see the hope and determination of the evictees but know exactly how things will end. As Nash moves to the other side of the door and starts to carry out his own evictions, it becomes almost sickening to watch. The film is bookended with another violent confrontation around an eviction, folding in on itself and pivoting on a moment in the second act, in which Nash moves from a victim to a complicit participant in the foreclosure crisis. 99 Homes mirrors itself from either side of this moment. Whereas in the second act we saw the joyous return of Nash and his family to their family home, in the third we see the same scene without the exuberance and joy, as Nash attempts to move them into a McMansion he has bought by selling their old home. As Bahranhi takes us back over the same territory, with both our central family and those that surround them, our immersion and revulsion builds to meet the film’s own dramatic climax.
Shannon is riveting and horrifying as the film’s anti-hero – obnoxiously vaping in the background of what is undoubtedly one of the worst moments in the lives of these characters, he profits shamelessly from the misfortune of others, taking from both the government and the people and representing perhaps the real, dark nature of the American Dream: survival and success at the cost of others. Andrew Garfield is excellent as the everyman offered a deal with the devil, and it is refreshing to see him grow into a role in this way. His adoption by Carver is perhaps a bit too smooth, a bit too easy, given the traumatic nature of their earlier encounters, but Garfield sells us on his desperation, enterprise, and continued distrust of Carver. His determination to reclaim his family home is touching and troubling in equal parts – it is this same obsession with owning one’s home, this attachment to property, that is at the heart of the American Dream and the GFC itself. Laura Dern is wonderful if underused as Nash’s mother, revisiting much of the same territory as she did in Dennis Villeneuve’s Wild as an embattled but beatific parent.
Bahranhi’s Florida is a depressing place, and Carver makes reference to the “sob story” that each of the plethora of down-and-out characters who populate it carry. It is interesting, then, that Bahrani chooses to give us a glimpse of Carver’s own sob story, as he reveals his own background in construction and his family’s abandonment and betrayal by the system. That Carver is granted the dignity of circumstance that his victims are not is perhaps another tenet of the system that he is able to transcend, illegally, while his victims are only chewed up. The film ends on an oddly optimistic and perhaps a touch saccharine note, nodding to the next generation who may be able to break the cycle for themselves – though with the weight of corruption pressing down upon the characters in these final scenes, we might even welcome this tonal break, and offer of redemption.