Ramin Bahrani’s 99 HOMES showcases some outstanding acting from Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield in an unsettling but gripping drama.
What a shot in the arm this movie was. I was impressed by writer/director Ramin Bahrani’s new drama 99 HOMES back in 2014 when it premiered at the Venice film festival, so I showcased its trailer in my post The world is a ruthless place in 99 Homes. Centring on the housing crisis in America when it reached its height in 2010, I thought we not only had a movie whose story still had a resonance with the situation in the United States and many other places today but it also contained two outstanding performances from Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield. Now that the film has finally been released in the UK, I urge you to catch it.
Rick Carver (an exceptional Michael Shannon) has built himself an empire. From relatively humble beginnings as a real estate agent, he’s now sitting on a successful and ever-growing portfolio of properties – most of them acquired as a result of the homeowners defaulting on their loans. Walking into their houses when people are at their most desperate, he seems not to care about what he’s doing. Dennis Nash (a standout turn from Andrew Garfield), is a single dad raising his young son with the help of his mother and struggling to get by finding work as a carpenter. Falling behind on his housing payments, it’s only a matter of time before he comes face to face with Carver, eviction, and life at the sharp end of the American dream.
And so the collision of these two men meeting forms the core of Bahrani’s morality tale, as we watch Nash swallow his pride and begin working for Carver when no other work exists, in order to simply survive. Nash’s straightforward attitude in dealing with situations impresses Carver and soon he replaces Carver’s go-to housing crew and effectively becomes his right-hand man. Of course with all of this work comes money – lots of it and Nash’s ethics begin to be eroded away as he gets drawn into a world of greed and go-getting businessmen.
“When you work for me, you’re mine,” says Carver to Nash at one point but although on the surface you think he sounds ruthless, it’s Bahrani’s skill as both writer and director that he presents the drivers behind both men’s behaviour – I didn’t think Carver the villain of the piece, any more than Nash is the hero of it. Both are flawed and trying to exist in a decidedly dog-eat-dog society.
Hiding his new-found wealth from his family for a time, when Nash does eventually reveal it in a gesture that he believes will make them happy again, it takes his mother (brilliantly portrayed by Laura Dern) to make him begin to realise what’s happening to his humanity.
This is don’t-take-your-eyes-off-the-screen type stuff and not knowing Bahrani’s previous work, which is almost in the realm of documentaries before seeing 99 HOMES, you realise where the handheld camerawork (from Bobby Bukowski – director of photography on Oren Moverman’s Rampart and The Messenger) and rough n’ ready feel of the movie possibly stems from. There’s also an excellent soundtrack that underscores everything with a hypnotic electronic feel by Antony Partos and Matteo Zingales. Alongside the two leads, there’s notable support from Noah Lomax as Nash’s son, Tim Guinee as another beleaguered homeowner and a nice cameo from the fantastic Clancy Brown as a smooth entrepreneur.
‘Ramin Bahrani’s unsettling, bleak but gripping tale‘ I tweeted after seeing this and it is quite a hard watch at times, as people are pushed to breaking point and over the edge when their homes and self-worth are taken away from them. But it’s thoroughly absorbing too, courtesy of Shannon and Garfield’s acting in particular, so do not miss it.