Often pulsing with a score of ominous, insistent electronica, Ramin Bahrani's 99 Homes seems an echo from the fictional side of the story telling divide opposite documentaries of tragic economic chicanery like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Client 9 and Inside Job. All are films, whether apparent truth or fiction, concerning themselves with the deregulation of the financial industry that found its most devastating expression in the Global Financial Crisis (the swath of destruction vast enough that we can now grant it capital letters, like a world war) of 2008 and beyond.
We're not given a specific date when we're dropped into the midst of the action, the great reversal, taking place in the U.S economy, but the setting is Orlando Florida (with unrecognizable suburbs of New Orleans standing in). What's clear is that the economic crisis, initiated largely by a multitude of doomed mortgages, is quickly fanning and settling like a gangrenous rot. This is quickly signaled from the site of a cookie-cutter house construction whose framing is abruptly halted when word arrives that the company funding the building has gone bankrupt. The word is given to Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield, late of the Spiderman suit), apparently something of a foreman on the site. He stops the progress of his nail gun, whistles and informs his crew members that the job is over and no one is getting paid for the previous two weeks' labor.
As he has done through his five feature films, Ramin Bahrani grounds his stories of crisis and people on the economic margins in very credible specifics. We're made privy to any number of disturbing particulars through the 112 minutes of 99 Homes, some relating to the mortifying plight of those unceremoniously thrown out of their homes, many others to the opportunists who continued to feast on the carcass of our outsized and tragically compromised banking industry even as political leaders made great shows of addressing the problem. Real estate agent Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) is one such shrewd character, arriving on the scene of personal tragedies in a series of linen blazers, glib if authoritative declarations at the ready about the inevitability of such encounters, a Glock pistol in an ankle holster in case the former owners of homes take the evictions particularly badly.
Even as he has graduated in a sense to larger budgets and name actors with 99 Homes and his previous At Any Price (2013), Mr. Bahrani hasn't lost his eye for (or discipline in finding) detail, nor, apparently, his sympathy for those on the margins of the economy involved in a kind of hand to hand combat to survive. Nonetheless, that score by Anthony Partos and Matteo Zinageles rumbles like an approaching, reckoning storm in 99 Homes. The problem is that these big, broad American stories tend to arrive with their drama already built in. The showdown to which 99 Homes builds certainly results in a tense climax, but to what end?
As it happens, Dennis Nash, skilled though he may be, is one of the legion of Americans just several paychecks from the street. The loss of the construction job we see at the outset of 99 Homes marks one such fateful surcease of income. In short order, the desperate man finds himself before a not-terribly-sympathetic judge in a "rocket docket" in which the case is quickly decided against him, making phone calls to lawyers in an attempt to stop the foreclosure of his family home and, within days, answering the door to that dapper grim reaper of Orlando real estate, Rick Carver.
In a ritual that Bahrani effectively repeats in 99 Homes, we see a stunned family literally given minutes to collect their most valued items before being accompanied by waiting law enforcement out of their homes. If they linger on the front lawn, as does Dennis Nash, his mother (Laura Dern) and son Connor (Noah Lomax), they are told that they actually need to move to the street curb. The helpless Nash, must watch as Carver's team swarm in after him to change the locks and even poke through his toolbox standing in the driveway. The entire scene - fear at the summoning knock on the door, the initial disbelief and bargaining with the eviction agent, the inevitable anger as the action takes on its galling momentum and ultimately the helpless staring at a home suddenly not one's home - is powerful and involving.
The Orlando setting was apparently chosen because Florida was one of four states most profoundly affected by the mortgage crisis. Mr. Bahrani went on runs with real estate agents (all armed, he says) as they evicted homeowners. As does Rick Carver in 99 Homes, the real real estate folk lamented the upturn of their vocation; those who took jobs to put people in houses found themselves primarily evicting stunned individuals and families from their homes. Of course, some embrace chaos with more enthusiasm than do others, the crisply attired Mr. Carver being one such member of the new economic vanguard.
Bahrani and his co-writer Amir Naderi weave together the fates of remover and removed, a clear contrivance on its surface which echoes the strange bargains and bedfellows littered throughout our economy. When Dennis Nash goes to Carver's office to confront the flunky he believes stole an expensive tool, he instead finds himself accepting an offer to assist on a particularly unpleasant job. Occupants of a house on the verge of eviction have not only stripped the establishment of anything valuable and hastily spray-painted "Kill BANkers" on an interior wall, they have also blocked the septic system, causing its contents to back up into the house. Young Nash's job, should he choose to accept it: literally shoveling shit. Like a whispered, insistent chorus, those dark questions of capitalism assail the principals in 99 Homes - "What are you willing to do?" "How much is it worth to you." Demonstrating that he's of harder stuff than Carver might first have reckoned, Nash bargains the initial offer up to $200, recruits a couple of the crew to join him, covers his nose and sets to work. Having surveyed this scene and allowed us to imagine the stench, Mr. Bahrani doesn't dwell too much in these unsavory particulars. We next see Dennis Nash show up at the motel to which his family has relocated, proudly waving the cash he's earned. Somehow he's clean. His workingman's clothes, which likely would have had to have been burned, betray no sight or smell of his disgusting labors.
The motel to which Nash, his mother and son are forced relocate is another of those details of which Mr. Bahrani was made aware doing his research for 99 Homes. Those without other recourse find themselves in this kind of housing limbo, amongst other such evictees, fellow transients of the economy and even cheek by jowl with blatant criminals. Such motels, like the real estate business of the time, given darker purpose, like check cashing joints and convenience stores providing their dubious sustenance even as they keep the poor in their place. Nash's family does also find some measure of community (there are so many such stranded families that a local school bus stops at the motel) at this weigh station, Connor finding playmates, Nash's mother plying her hair styling business in the open air.
The family's one-room residency ultimately seems protracted for effect for some time after their enterprising young breadwinner starts to make serious money with Carver. The ostensible reason is that Dennis Nash wants to reclaim his modest home, despite his mentor's repeated admonition, "Don't get emotional about real estate." What the longer than necessary stay at the hotel really accomplishes is a confrontation between Nash and a man whose family had recently been evicted. Confronted in the motel parking lot by the man, Nash screams in vain, "I don't know you!" "I know you!" comes the rejoinder, which might as well emanate from Dennis Nash's own shit-smeared soul as from the incensed man trying to get a piece of him.
There's an apt puppy dog eagerness about Andrew Garfield, playing this young man so desperate to keep his family in a home, whatever it takes. Those brown eyes spend much time dilated in concern, to importune, to await reinforcement. Glamorous as the movies may elsewhere make him, he seems to embody through his very pores and make particular what is a common type of American young man, his striving and even his sense of honor like a piece of newly-poured iron, dangerously capable of being ill-formed while relatively new and hot.
Young Nash is able to graduate from t-shirts and ball caps to polo shirts (or a long-sleeve shirt rolled restively up from the cuffs) and black jeans, working man's dress clothes which seem to chafe a bit even in their relative comfort, as he quickly wins the trust of Carver by proving himself skilled not only at all manner of home construction and dismantling, but with an enterprising kind of ruthlessness. When the real estate agent asks him to relocate, as it were, air conditioning units from vacant homes, Nash swipes the pool pumps as well, knowing their resale will bring extra cash. The shifting around of such pumps and condensing units, the moving of kitchen cabinets from one home to another like a shell game. Here more convincing, dire detail from the script of Bahrani and Naderi as Carver frequently defrauds Fannie Mae, the Government Sponsored Enterprise, like Freddie Mac, operating at the time with all the effectiveness of Victorian governesses trying to police a maximum security prison.
When Dennis Nash is slowed by misgiving, Carver has convincing speeches at the ready, all the more effective because he's smart and elouquent enough to point out everything that is broken in the American economy and the government's deregulation of banking. With these insights, Carver adds rhetorical flourishes which also bear the stench of underlying and rarely-aired truth, "America doesn't bail out losers. America was built by bailing out winners, by rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners."
Later, Carver adds the weight of Biblical metaphor to his exhortations "Only one in a hundred is gonna get on that ark, son. Every other poor soul is gonna drown." Michael Shannon has frequently proven that he has a scene stealing, even a film-carrying (as in Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter) presence. With Rick Carver, his charisma is as dangerous, even as mad as anything he's portrayed because of its apparent normalcy. There's certainly a powerful charm, even a kind of humility when he chooses to go in that direction. Bahrani and Naderi have created a character who can conveniently give eloquent voice to their story's dark sub-themes. And yet, there are men like Carver out there. Many less polished, but our country produces them in undending supply.
99 Homes heads propulsively into its climax with a storyline about Frank Green (Tim Guinee), like Nash, being evicted from his home. Carver is trying to arrange a deal for 100 homes, which will lead to even grander things for he and his reluctant protege, Nash. But Green refuses to go easily into foreclosure and mounts an effective legal defense, leaving Carver one "box" short of his planned 100. This one and ninety-nine relationship lends the film its title, echoed also in Carver's remark about the determined one percent aboard the ark. Of course, there is also the 99 percent rallying cry which emerged from the Occupy movement.
Like Nash, Green is presented as a good man pushed to extremes. He's first seen when Carver confronts him after catching sight of a power card and water line running between Green's home and one of Carver's vacant properties. Green assures Carver that he's an honorable man, this is not who he is. Green is unsurprisingly unforgiving when finds that Nash is an agent of Carver and all that he has come to despise. The proud man disdainfully dismisses Nash when he subsequently comes to check on him. Ultimately, Nash is charged with delivering a forged document that will undo Green in court. Nash's moral dilemma and its ramifications then determine the film's final, violent confrontation.
In addition to the tortured Nash pacing around a courthouse rotunda with the poison document in his hand, we also get images at the same site of Green and Nash's children affably recognizing one another. At this point, we might as well be in some story of endless, tragic bloodshed in the Middle East, children of Arab and Jew alike in oblivious foreground play. Which is to say, we're in the realm of the cliche.
It is with this last foreclosure gone very wrong that Mr. Bahrani's story overheats in such a way that he can't recover it. Even with a slightly ambiguous conclusion, there's a kind of all-clear catharsis that lingers as the closing credits appear in 99 Homes. It's effective enough in terms of film script convention, leaving audiences (particularly American) where they prefer to be left, as if stepping off a frightening but ultimately contained amusement park ride.
Which reminds one of that great bit on the Simpson's about Enron stock ownership, the "Enron Ride of Broken Dreams" seeing its riders soar toward the heavens - "We're all gonna be rich!" - before they're sent crashing down into the poor house. That, of course, not a kind of satire in which Mr. Bahrani is interested.
Unfortunately, the director and writer loses focus with 99 Homes, much as his concern for the disenfranchised of our economy seems clear enough, his characters Dennis Nash and Frank Green standing proxy for many similarly afflicted. Through his first four films, Ramin Bahrani has not strayed far from the personal and the specific. This was the case in his first two features - Man Push Cart (2005) and Chop Shop (2007), featuring first generation immigrants truly laboring on the outskirts of America's massive economy. Even the more dramatic dimension - a man planning his suicide - of Goodbye Solo (2008), maintains its proportion with it very personal stories.
Ramin Bahrani's progress to larger projects has been more problematic. Somehow, the farming and stock car story At Any Price (2013) works, Dennis Quaid's stylized performance symbolic of the film's ultimate success, the often emblematic actor still somehow affecting despite his Henry Whipple being composed of found bits of character and line delivery. At Any Price sheds it's big story and equally broad themes in time for a consideration of personal responsibility, guilt and compromise.
With 99 Homes, the sense of personal suffering of its men - and it's almost exclusively about men and a kind of enraged impotence - ultimately serves a larger, contrived drama, not the other way around. Mr. Bahrani's drama is very effective, but when we're drawing off the suffering and iniquity of our hopelessly imbalanced economy, is catharsis really what is called for?