“It’s not your home anymore.”
Director Ramin Bahrani has long been preoccupied with portraying the price of the American dream on the big screen – the theme is obvious in both At Any Price and Man Push Cart — but his 99 Homes finally fully capitalizes on that obsession to great effect. This time around, Bahrani is concerned with the bursting of the mortgage bubble, turning his attention to the swamplands of Florida, where regular people (oh, hey, just like Andrew Garfield’s Dennis Nash) are desperately trying to hold on to their family homes, even as opportunists like Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) use their misfortune to fuel their own businesses.
Dennis is already desperate when the film opens, mere days away from losing the Nash family home, effectively sealing that his inability to pay the bills has ruined his life, his young son Connor’s (Noah Lomax) life and even his mother Lynn’s (Laura Dern) life. Three generations of Nash are relying on Dennis, and he’s about to let down every single one (it must be noted that, while Bahrani is apparently intent on pushing the generational aspect of the film, Dern is underused and casting a mother as the sole female protagonist doesn’t make much sense). Dennis loses the house – Connor loses the house, Lynn loses the house – and a seemingly normal day is destroyed by the arrival of real estate agent Rick (who represents the various banks who own scads of unpaid mortgages), a pair of surly cops and a ragtag team of down-and-out losers who are all there to empty the Nash home and leave the family with nothing.
The inhumanity of Rick’s actions – and later, of Dennis’ – is staggering, and Bahrani’s matter of fact approach to the situation at hand only serves to drive home the point that this tragedy is an everyday one. Dennis’ life is not unique.
Forcefully removed from their own home (well, the bank’s home), the Nash family decamps to a rundown hotel populated by families just like them. Again, Dennis’ life is not unique, but that’s about to change. Desperate to reclaim some of his self-respect and manhood, Dennis goes after one of Rick’s guys, convinced he robbed him during his eviction. The encounter has an unexpected consequence: Rick convinces Dennis to come along on a particularly vile job, where the scrappy young father impresses the man responsible (at least, in his mind) for so much of his pain, eventually becoming his right-hand man in some increasingly shady business dealings.
The irony of the situation drives the film, and as Dennis becomes more and more indispensable to Rick (who has some, ahem, creative ways to make money off all those foreclosed homes he’s in charge of), Rick also becomes essential to Dennis. He owns him, and it seems a long shot that Dennis can ever get away from the man who stole his life, and then incrementally fed it back to him by way of bloated cashier’s checks. The feature nimbly tackles the dueling moralities at its heart, never picking a clear “winner” or moral authority, and allowing Rick and Dennis to exhibit both good and bad aims and actions. Dennis’ emotional story may have the upper hand, but the ease in which he slips into Rick’s world (and lies to his family about it) is disturbing. He’s a victim, but he’s also a perpetrator, a concept that Bahrani hammers home as Dennis himself starts playing Rick’s role, effectively evicting plenty of horrified families himself.
Despite Bahrani’s even-handed approach, the director is prone to infusing his feature with unnecessary tics – mainly, a handful of dim-witted coincidences that feel too clean and too neat – that diminish the film’s power. Dennis’ downfall is punctuated by a fraught relationship with Frank Green (Tim Guinee), the father of one of Connor’s classmates who we meet early on in the feature as he too goes to court to battle for his house. The pair interact throughout the film, and 99 Homes’ emotionally rich but logically unsound final act is entirely build on their dueling aims and a tension-filled race to see who will emerge victorious.
Garfield’s intense on-screen vulnerability – the kind that’s clear in Boy A, but that’s decidedly lacking in his Spider-Man outings – is on full display here, and his ability to telegraph big emotions with small looks is astonishing. These are the kind of films the actor should be making, and he succeeds mightily in his role. Shannon is somewhat more restrained than we’re used to seeing him, although Rick is prone to big outbursts, big talking and big speeches (with a love for e-cigs t0 boot), and he’s still one of our finest working actors, and his chemistry with Garfield is potent.
Bahrani’s dismantling of the American dream – a dream deferred – has finally reached its finest conclusion with the director’s finely wrought (and seriously fraught) 99 Homes, the kind of feature we’d want to live in, if it wasn’t so damn heartbreaking.
The Upside: Stellar performances from both Garfield and Shannon (who exhibit a strong chemistry between each other that only gets better as the film goes on), a finely made and fiercely bold deconstruction of the price of the American dream, crisply filmed, emotionally effective without being heavy-handed.
The Downside: Needless coincidences bog down the script, Laura Dern deserves more to do, the third act is riddled with hard-to-swallow plot movements.
On the Side: The film is Garfield’s only non-Spider-Man outing since 2010’s The Social Network.