Losing your home is a devastating and traumatising process. You quickly feel the loss of all control, over your property, over your emotions, over your life. 99 Homes’ ability to emulate just a small piece of that is its greatest success. It’s not necessarily the hardest of all emotions to bring out of your audience – after all, the fear of losing your home, the place where you feel the most secure, the place that houses your family’s shared experiences – is universal. But the sense of anxiety, agitation and the heart palpitations that arise from the scenes where families are forced out onto the street (they have only minutes to remove their stuff; they can’t even stand in the front garden, they have to move to the curb) are what open the film up and allow you to be consumed by its story and world. Scarily, it’s very much the world we all live in.
Andrew Garfield plays Dennis Nash, a Florida labourer who is told he has 30 days to appeal the court decision that allowed the bank to foreclose on his house. Despite this, Michael Shannon playing Rick Carver of Rick Carver Real Estate, enters his home the next day, tells Nash that he is the one trespassing and that he only has two minutes (a courtesy) to pack the things that mean the most too him. After a confrontation at Carver’s offices, he finds there is work to be done in one of the homes that has been swallowed up by Carver’s firm. Impressed by his dedication to make money (he’s literally shovelling shit), Carver sets him up to be his right hand man, someone to do the dirty ground floor jobs that he has had enough of. This sets off a chain of events that submerges Nash into the greasy world of home brokering.
Director Ramin Bahrani got a reputation in American Indy filmmaking for using a near documentary style to capture the reality of the American lower class. Films like Man Push Cart and Chop Shop put you at street level and walked you through the struggle of people desperately trying to keep poverty at bay. Then he made At Any Price, a bizarrely Zac Efron filled piece of Hollywood gloss that had the smack of a low-rent Billy Elliot about it.
99 Homes fits between these two styles. Big, showy speeches and a biblical style parable for a narrative bring a mainstream entertainment flavour to a film about the despair of losing everything you’ve ever worked for. One moment you are following a camera crew around suburban Florida as worryingly real people are kicked out of their abodes, the next you are listening to Michael Shannon fish for an Oscar with a lecture on America’s corrupt finance system.
Shannon bullies his way through the film with a fascistic combination of aggression and authority. His speech about winners is the film’s centrepiece and also what makes him dangerous. He allows you to see where he is coming from. Most would play this role with a suit of emotional armour three inches thick, but Shannon gives him a vulnerability that lets you see where the dents in his armour are. He claims to have been made a by the system, a system that doesn’t make money by giving people the American Dream, but by teasing it, then taking it away. Notice how all the people being put out on the street are makers, builders, producers, and that all those making money are within the system itself. They don’t do anything productive for the world, they are the ones overseeing it and have rigged it in their favour.
Garfield is a bit too soft to be utterly convincing as a blue collar worker. The cigarette he has behind his ear is of place and he looks uncomfortable smoking it. You can tell he wears the trucker’s cap to hide his boyband hair. His accent is as soft as his moisturised skin. His gestures make up for it, especially when he is under duress. Once he turns up the heat on the scenes all questions about him answer themselves. He does have a much better success rate when he oozes into a sleazebag realtor, a role that Nash fits all too comfortably into. You constantly see him struggle with the tightrope walk across the murky chasm of his moral choices. The further you get into the film the more you appreciate his contribution.
But the real stars of the show are the eviction scenes. The soundtrack slowly pulses underneath the action like a steadily rising heartbeat, the actors try to keep a façade of clam collectiveness that cracks upon every exchange with the sheriff’s deputies. It captures that sense of violation, of invasion, of being stamped on by someone bigger. That is the panic and hopelessness of these victims and 99 Homes makes you feel it, however briefly. And that is the film’s triumph.
4 / 5
Dir: Ramin Bahrani
Scr: Ramin Bahrani , Amir Naderi and Bahareh Azimi
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon and Laura Dern
Prd: Ashok Amritraj, Ramin Bahrani, Andrew Garfield
DOP: Bobby Bukowski
Run time: 112 mins
99 Homes is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from the 25th of January.