Ah, the economic crisis of 2007. A still unexplored theme with moral and social complexities that can be quickly summarised as F*ck the Banks. Director Ramin Bahrani, mostly known for Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, takes the subject for a spin in his latest feature, 99 Homes.
Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a honest construction worker troubled by a lack of jobs and late mortgage payments on his family home. Living with his mum Lynn (Laura Dern) and kid Connor (Noah Lomax), he just got defeated by the court and lost his house to the bank. Doing the dirty work of making sure they vacate their family home is Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), a ruthless estate agent who perfectly incarnates the American myth of the self-made man. By irony of destiny, also known as scriptwriters’ plotting, Nash ends up working for Carver, and realises that there’s much more money to be made by siding with the “bad” guys than sticking to your values. But can Nash be as ruthless and heartless as Carver?
This American Nightmare tale starts strong, and is served well by both Garfield’s and Shannon’s performances. We never learn the “why” of Nash’s familiar situation (i.e. where is Connor’s mother?) but his character development is such we do not need it: we understand why he is forced to work for his greatest “enemy”, and we believe that he’s willing to do anything in his power to offer his family a better life. But if his challenged moral compass is the strongest part of the film, the same cannot be said for Carver’s character. When we first meet him in front of an ex-house owner’s suicide scene, there’s a slight whisper of Humanity. But don’t hold your breath; soon the story, incapable of being bolder, transforms him into a typical charismatic villain, with the criminal actions easily associated with an Evil Estate Agent (stealing from the government, forging papers, and of course having a gorgeous mistress on the side). Add to this a conclusion that rests on an incredible coincidence, and 99 Homes ends up as a slightly-too-long, competent film, but little more than that.
The moral of the story may be, as Carver says at one point, “America doesn’t bail out losers. America bails out winners,” but by the end, and perhaps because of Shannon’s incredible performance, there’s a sense that Nash (SPOILER ALERT) bit the hand that fed him during his hard times (END SPOILER ALERT). Technically, Bobby Bukowski’s cinematography leaves much to be desired, and his handheld moments make the film feel dated and easily falling in an independent-low-budget-shot-in-7-days category, something that is definitely not helped by some poor editing choices (fades on a montage sequence? Really??) Of course, that can be part of Bahrani’s director street cred, but if the intention was to make the film feel raw and real, then the casting of super Spider star Garfield, beard or no beard, was a massive mistake.
Still, it may not add anything new to the Economic Crisis of the Noughties Film Shelf, but some of its scenes and cast may well add it to a labeled-box-under-the-stairs, For Future Reference.
99 Homes will be in UK cinemas on 25th September 2015