It’s 2010 and we open in the bathroom of a modest, suburban home. Reflected in the mirror is a leg hanging over the bathtub’s edge and blood splattered on the wall. A camera pan gives us a brief, but shocking glimpse of a dead man’s body before the camera tightly focuses its grip on real estate agent Rick Carver who seems un-scarred by the scene and all business. In this single, beautifully unedited shot the world of 99 Homes is established and you’d be hard pressed to not remember this world. It is a world just after the housing bubble burst in which horror scene after horror scene was not uncommon and the government bailed out the big banks with little thought for the individual families affected by adjustable rate loans and easy-to-get second mortgages who were dumped onto the streets or into seedy motels with little monetary resources.
Here’s the deal with 99 Homes: It made the festival rounds in 2014 showing up at Telluride, TIFF and Venice — among many other fests. Michael Shannon, Andrew Garfield and the film itself were very well received. Not too long after that, Broad Green acquired distribution rights for the film and set it for release in 2015. My review from TIFF 2014 for AwardsDaily read as follows: “the artistry is major and director Ramin Bahrani creates a movie that you’ll keep thinking about for days on end” – I was right, more than 15 months later I’m still thinking about the film.
Whenever a movie is released almost a year after its film fest premiere, doubts start to emerge. “Why was it delayed for so long?” The ultimate answer is known only to the the Broad Green team, but that hasn’t stopped the critics from showering the film with praise. Its 91% RottenTomatoes score speaks volumes about how this film truly hits home. Michael Shannon has also emerged as a very viable Best Supporting Actor threat with a Golden Globe nod and an L.A. Film Critics Association win. Here’s an actor that is among the very best of his generation with incredibly masterful turns in Revolutionary Road and Take Shelter among others.
Ramin Bahrani’s tense, but terrific film stars Andrew Garfield as Dennis Nash, a man whose family home gets foreclosed upon by arrogant, money-hungry real estate mogul Ray Carver, devilishly played by Michael Shannon. Circumstances lead the desperate Dennis to work for Carver to get his home back. Both are excellent, and Laura Dern as Dennis’ mother is heartbreaking in an exceptionally resonant role, showing us the immense talents this underused actress possesses.
It all plays out like an unrelenting tragedy. One that plays like an action film with its episodic structure of different homes being foreclosed and the families heartbreakingly powerless in the face of harsh authorities. Bahrani brings an authentic documentary-style feel to the whole thing, using handheld cameras to swerve with the characters and raise the tension. This is about a country gone astray (hell, a society gone astray) and a poisonous system that doesn’t just seem unfair, but criminal. This is a movie for its time and about its time that is frighteningly urgent and has more than enough relevance to pack a punch. Though laws and regulations have helped repair the real estate market in America, there is still a rapidly growing instability.
Every setting in the film holds illustrative significance; Carver’s posh estate for his three daughters is built off the robbery of other families’ homes, and the unfurnished mansion where Craver and Nash meet speaks to the former’s emotional detachment and suggests the latter’s fruitless departure from his honest carpenter days.
Bahrani never lets you forget the dooming decisions that are constantly made. Sparse injections of snappy vulgarity fail to humorously cultivate within Shannon’s sphere of authentic monotone character mentality. His Craver preaches, “Don’t get attached to real estate.” But, of course, you do. How could you not? Any right-minded person with a heart would cringe at every family desperately pleading to keep their homes. On the surface, it seems like a typical good versus evil story against corrupt business. It is, but the film’s convention plays this a little different. First of all, Michael Shannon not only makes Rick’s despicable character a love-to-hate guy, but we do get an insight into his profession and how the housing crash worked to his playing field. The film establishes that he had the personality to pull this off. Not many could have the stomach to watch the sheer desperation of people when it comes to this situation. Their livelihood is at stake and all that Craver does is watch from afar as authorities force their way into the homes and kick out the residents.
In its entirety 99 Homes is an absolutely devastating film, one of the saddest, yet most relevant, I’ve seen of this decade. Its narrative essentially operates on a field of landmines. Much credit must go to Director Bahrani, whose previous films were as low-budget as professional indie filmmaking could get. Check out his 2009 film Goodbye Solo if you feel like watching an unheralded masterpiece. Late film critic Roger Ebert was a staunch supporter of Bahrani’s films, and for good reason. Despite some of the concessions that had to be made for a big studio movie — primarily the action finale — the artistry is major in this film. Bahrani has created a movie that’ll give you nightmares.