Author’s Note: This review originally appeared on MonkeyGoose on December 12, 2015.
Roger Ebert, a guy you have heard of, once said “movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” He also once said that Ramin Bahrani, a guy you haven’t heard of, is “the new great American director.” Both statements are evident in Bahrani’s newest effort 99 Homes (2015).
Do you know how I know that you haven’t heard of Bahrani? Because he’s the kind of filmmaker that makes short films about a plastic bag voiced by German director Werner Herzog with a score by Icelandic band Sigur Ros. That’s how.
With 99 Homes (2015), Bahrani is poised to get the mainstream attention he’s earned, given the star power of his cast. Both Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spiderman, The Social Network) and Michael Shannon (Man of Steel, Boardwalk Empire) have found success in both blockbusters and art house, to say nothing of Laura Dern – who you probably know as Ellie from Jurassic Park (1993) but who you should know as “that actress who’s great in everything, from David Lynch to Paul Thomas Anderson to Jean-Marc Vallee.”
The film follows blue-collar single father Dennis Nash (Garfield) as he, his mother (Dern), and his son are evicted from their family home by ruthless real estate tycoon, Rick Carver (Shannon), during the housing crisis a few years back. In order to make ends meet during their financial hardship, Nash secretly and begrudgingly begins working for Carver, evicting other people from their homes and doing to their families what Carver had done to his. Carver takes Nash under his wing and makes him his protégé, and Nash eventually helps Carver broker a multimillion dollar deal to sell 100 homes, with a 1,000 more (and millions of dollars more) coming on the backend.
Now, that’s a premise that I begrudgingly acknowledge as a good premise. I’m not saying that I demand subtlety at all times, but if the two sentence summary of the plot makes my 75-year-old grandmother go “Ooh!” with intrigue, there’s a chance I’ll roll my eyes at it.
And the only reason I say that is because movies with a very-obvious-moral-message premise (like an evicted guy evicting people for the guy that evicted him) so often lend themselves to be predictable, safe, dull movies.
99 Homes is not predictable, safe, or dull.
From the very first shot of the movie, a shot that made my eyes widen and elicited an audible “Oh shit”, Bahrani sets the tone and tells you what kind of movie this is going to be – one that pulls no punches, has serious consequences, and is very deftly made. Real estate doesn’t seem like the most compelling subject at face value, but these are people losing their homes, after all.
What the movie proves is that the premise – good or bad, clever or obvious – doesn’t matter as much as the characters. Dennis Nash, in Andrew Garfield’s best work since The Social Network (maybe ever), displays a moral indignation, a detachment from Carver and the work he’s doing for him, trying to convince himself it’s just doing it to make ends meet. But we as the audience – and Carver – are acutely aware that Nash enjoys the new-found financial independence, and is more than willing to do less-than-honest things to continue on that path. Meanwhile, Shannon’s Rick Carver is the embodiment of cold-hearted, like if Act I Emperor Kuzco and Act I Ebenezer Scrooge had a baby (they’re always dicks in Act I, aren’t they?).
And it’s Michael Shannon, already with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination under his belt for Revolutionary Road (2008), who really shines in this movie. Surprisingly, in talking with Deadline, after Dominic Patton opened the interview by asking if his character is the devil – which is, to anyone who’s seen the movie, an honest question – Shannon was quick to defend Rick Carver.
“Rick just wanted to be a real estate broker. It’s like during the Bubonic plague; he’s the guy who had to drag all the dead bodies away. This is a responsibility that was thrown in his lap.” He went on to talk about how people in the housing crisis were hurt, not by evictors, but by what he called the ‘invisible hand of influence.’ His character, Rick, sees this, and he can either allow himself to be victimized as well, or take advantage of it. “The real villain, you don’t see in the movie,” Shannon explained, referring to the bankers and lenders who contributed to the housing bubble. “All Rick wanted to do was sell houses, and then this happened.”
Like its thematic step-brother Up in the Air (2009), 99 Homes covers the 2008 recession with grace and heart. But instead of tackling it with a (mostly) light-hearted tone, following characters who are on the outside of the devastation looking in, 99 Homes puts you right at the source of the suffering and keeps jabbing you with it. Yes, it’s a relevant reflection of its time, but that’s secondary to its smart direction, patiently-crafted script, and exceptional performances.