99 Homes had one of the most viscerally upsetting moments in film that I’ve seen this year in a scene where humans are seen at their lowest and most selfish, and it’s one that speaks largely to the overall nature of the film. Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon star in director Ramin Bahrani’s newest film, 99 Homes, an emotionally riveting film that takes the economical housing crisis and turns it into a full-fledged drama. The film is about rich decadence being built on the shoulders of those feeling the economic hardships and how both on either end of the spectrum get to those positions. Dennis Nash (Garfield) is a young man who’s taking care of both his son and mother when one day he is evicted by bank representative Rick Carver (Shannon). Desperate to put his family back into a position of security, Nash will do anything to make ends meet, even if that means partnering with the man who kicked him out to begin with.
99 Homes is a film that hits close to home in its bigger emotional moments because the troubles that the families being evicted from their homes are facing are more universal, and more familiar than what we’re used to seeing in film. The great hurdle that these families are facing is the loss of their homes, of the tangible comforts that make their lives both easier and happier. Not every audience member can relate to a house of theirs being foreclosed on, but there’s a sense of displacement, of shame that radiates throughout the films’ narrative that is relatable. That viscerally upsetting moment I touched on briefly in the opening is a moment of such utter helplessness that I actually had to avert my eyes. The face of the old man sitting on the front lawn of what minutes before used to be his home is an image that’s going to be seared into my memory for quite some time and will likely go down as one of the most upsetting in film this year.
Director Bahrani never tries to take short cuts in the deplorable acts his characters are committing. Rick Carver isn’t a redeemable character and Dennis Nash isn’t simply acting out of the good of his family. Carver is corruption personified and Nash is swept up in the ideology that he can screw the system since the system screwed him. However, the script (also written by Bahrani) is intelligent in its way of making sure that while we question Nash and his questions, we’re never questioning his intent. We understand why Nash is making such poor decisions, one right after the other. We saw how much of the responsibility he held for his mom and son’s well-being but that doesn’t make his slow, slippery slope descent into Carver’s clutches any less upsetting. We want Nash to do the right thing even when his motives are abundantly clear.
This back and forth between the characters is made all the more engaging with Shannon and Garfield in front of the camera. The two actors share an enormously entertaining rapport and their dynamic is so good that the rest of the film suffered (albeit slightly) when the two weren’t sharing the screen. Shannon continues to be one of the most interesting actors today, playing slick slime ball with impassioned conviction. Garfield in turn (in his first film since playing Spider-Man) is the perfect juxtaposition for Shannon, who’s coiled businessman attire plays well off of Garfield’s everyman vulnerability, emotions worn clearly on his sleeves. His hopes are so, excruciatingly simple at the start of their partnership; he just wants his home back, losing himself once he tastes that small sip of power and influence. It’s a shame that Laura Dern was given so little to do when she’s such a capable actress and the character herself could have used some more fleshing out to justify all the time spent on her and Nash’s relationship.
Bahrani shoots all of this in a manner that’s undoubtedly stylish, positioning the camera in atypical point of views and giving the film its overall gritty atmosphere while it’s shooting the character’s surroundings. It’s a human drama, based on human emotions and Bahrani makes sure he is up close and personal with his actors as they’re portraying this. The film is biting and it refuses to write happy endings simply for the sake of it. Bahrani has a skill in taking what would seem to be mundane, everyday anxieties and making them cinematic and 99 Homes, despite it’s subject matter, feels greater due to the talent in front of and behind the camera. He understands the significance in Nash’s fear and his irrational behaviour, especially once money is involved. Despite the shame felt by the evicted characters, Bahrani never shoots the film or writes the characters as if they were actually deserving of that shame. It’s a compassionate film and an honest one, proving that all involved are still at the top of their games.