One of the most precarious cinematic tightropes available for an artist to walk is that razor-thin line between urgent cultural criticism and flaccid moralizing. Many a well-intentioned filmmaker has tried to take an earnest stab at the various ills that plague our brave new world only to undermine his or her case with off-putting polemics or transparent emotional manipulation. Thankfully, Ramin Bahrani does not fall into that trap with his latest film, 99 Homes, a blistering indictment of the quagmire of unregulated capitalism that the United States and, increasingly, the world finds itself sinking into. It’s a very American morality play, examining the distinct national conceptions of all-consuming notions like self-worth, personal ambition, community. That said, the Iranian-American Bahrani still manages to make the film relevant to the 99 percent in other countries crippled by wanton greed and sickening inequality. Which is to say, most of them.
99 Homes stars Michael Shannon, one of America’s most uniquely eccentric performers, as the sneering embodiment of rapacious market forces gone amok. He plays Rick Carver, a Florida realtor who specializes in facilitating foreclosures and then flipping the properties at big margins while literally stepping over the scattered belongings of the helpless families he evicts. One of those families is that of Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), an underemployed construction worker who lives with his mother and son in one of those foreclosed homes. The early scene in which Carver and a pair of cops turn the family out of the house they’ve lived in for years is as tense and fraught with tragedy and repressed rage as the high notes of any of the thrillers I saw in 2015. Bahrani stretches it out for all its worth, rubbing our noses in the fact that turning people out of a place they’ve lived in all their lives over entries on a ledger is up there in terms of the most obscene and fundamental violations forced upon people in the name of commerce.
The fulcrum on which this film turns is Michael Shannon. He brings the pathology of the insatiably greedy to life. His distinctively wild-and-woolly vibe are channelled into a sophisticated villainy.
It’s almost worse that it’s all (mostly) legal and enforced by heavy-footed men with shiny badges. As it turns out, however, Nash manages to impress Carver, charging into a sewage-flooded house to clean it out where none of the latter’s regular employees would do so. Eventually, Carver offers Nash a job, giving him a chance to get his house back and keep his family out of poverty. Before you know it, Nash is the one holding the clipboard and telling people they have two minutes to gather their belongings and leave their house.
The film works beautifully on multiple levels – as a searching character study of both downtrodden worker and sharklike uber-capitalist, as an examination of a system set up overwhelmingly for the benefit of a few, even as a bona fide suspense thriller. The cops aren’t the only ones who wield guns in this film; Florida gun laws aren’t exactly stringent and desperate homeowners sometimes look to violence as their only option. Guns are just part of the vicious circle in which the American working and middle classes find themselves trapped in, a meaningless totem representing entirely illusory strength. The system condemned here is one that thrives on illusions once founded in reality.
The America where a blue-collar factory worker could stay at the same job for decades, buy a house, send his kids to college and not verge one hospital bill away from bankruptcy all his life used to exist once, if only for a little while. The hapless victims of the system depicted in Bahrani’s film cling to that outdated national ideal, flabbergasted when men with guns come to take their childhood homes from them even though they’ve been receiving overdue mortgage notices for weeks. They know at some level that those men are going to be outside the door at some point but never quite believe they might follow through on the threat of eviction. The eyes of every single person evicted in this film scream out one message: “How could this be happening to me? I work for a living!” By spending as much time as he does with the victims of corporate and state-backed theft (legal or not), Bahrani gives his film a dimension that other recent films on such topics – think Wolf of Wall Street or The Big Short – do not have. Both those examples are fantastic films but there’s nothing like an effective depiction of the human fallout of inhumane policies and practices to drive a thesis home.
That said, the fulcrum on which this film turns is Michael Shannon. He brings the pathology of the insatiably greedy to disturbing life, his distinctively wild-and-woolly vibe and vaguely Neanderthal features channeled into a more sophisticated villainy than the sort he usually plays. He also gets the best lines. “America doesn’t bail out losers,” he says. “America was built on bailing out winners.” And the thing is…he’s right.