It opens with blood spatter; it will end with your blood boiling. Which is to say that Ramin Bahrani’s ferocious foreclosure drama “99 Homes” is exactly as effective as it needs to be. While neither subtle nor particularly nuanced, the blunt force trauma impact of its narrative never feels exploitative, being wholly justified by the importance of its themes. "Importance" is such a loaded, off-putting word, but it’s the right one in this context, because while Bahrani’s filmmaking skill and the excellent performances convincingly sell the experience of the film almost as a genre thriller or a Scorsese-esque, descent-into-madness gangster picture, those of us not directly affected by the housing collapse will nonetheless emerge with a better understanding of its terrible human toll, one all too easy to push aside when it is reduced to statistics and demographics. And anyone watching who has been at the biting end of the property crisis must surely gain at least a small measure of catharsis at seeing their case so passionately and persuasively argued. There may be other films at Venice this week that cinephiles admire more, but as human beings striving for a modicum of social responsibility, ”99 Homes” truly affected us. It is important that you see this film.
While we’ve hinted that thematically speaking the film is a tough watch, Bahrani’s skill with pacing and rhythm means it’s almost instantly gripping too. After the shock of the opening shot, in which we glimpse the body of a man who has shot himself in the family bathroom following foreclosure, woozy tracking shots follow Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) the unscrupulous and apparently entirely unfeeling realtor as he bawls out underlings on the phone and generally treats the man’s death as an irritation. That irritation flares into anger when one of the officers on site confronts him about his lack of empathy, and in just a few short moments, we know everything we need to know about Carver. In fact, in the hands of another actor, the almost Bond-villain level of cat-stroking evil he sometimes displays could be an issue, but Shannon is mountainous in the role, embodying a whole ideology of self-interest and Darwinian disdain for weakness or failure. Like his firm that “represents the banks,” Carver is less a finely drawn human character than a representation of an incredibly unfair and corrupt system, and as such the role needs someone of Shannon’s magnetism in the role to even remotely work.
The foil to Shannon’s blustering Machievellian alpha male is Andrew Garfield’s Dennis Nash, son of Lynn (Laura Dern) father of Connor (Noah Lomax, who does who seem old to be Garfield’s son —Garfield is still Spider-man, right?— and physically resembles him not at all, but you get past that). He’s a construction worker affected first by the recession as construction on buildings is halted due to there no longer a market as such, and then a second time when the bank, despite his impassioned pleas, repossesses the family home that he’s preternaturally attached to. The scene of Dennis and Lynn being evicted by Carver and his goons is one of the most edge-of-your-seat tense, bristling and bruising scenes we’ve seen all year, a virtuoso set piece of acting, direction and editing that sets the tone for the emotional brutality to come. And come it does, as the drama kicks in to high gear when Nash, through a combination of happenstance and total financial desperation, begins to work for Carver, first doing odd jobs, then abetting him in ripping off the government with various shady schemes, before finally becoming his lieutenant and going into the business of evicting people himself.
There is no romance subplot, no outside embellishments to distract from the pact-with-the-devil narrative, and nor does there need to be: Garfield is terrific as the man who loses first his house and then his soul, and the conflicts and temptations he faces are utterly relatable throughout. It’s almost painful to so empathize with a character who we know is losing his way so irrevocably, but Garfield makes it impossible not to —you can palpably sense at every point how he is justifying his increasingly unjustifiable actions to himself, and how important it is for him to be able, despite it all, to think of himself as a good man. Until he no longer can. We wish there were more for Laura Dern to do, but as usual she makes the most of what little there is, and equally impressive are the many small cameo-level performances, often from non-professional actors playing casual laborers and evictees whom Bahrani, ever the humanist, accords an unusual degree of respect for what are practically extra-level roles.
We were less vitriolic about Bahrani’s last film, “At Any Price” than many others —its critique of the erosion of heartland America values in the recession felt unfocussed and suffered from an overcooked third act turn, but it was, as all his films have been, deeply felt and laudably determined to highlight stories of marginalized America. But with “99 Homes,” it feels like Bahrani’s learned many of the lessons resulting from his previous misfire, and has managed to find a place for the furious humanism of his early triumphs like “Goodbye Solo” and “Chop Shop” (his co-writer on both those films, Bahareh Azimi, gets a story credit here).
Its occasional heavy-handedness leaves the film open to accusations of melodrama, of course, and the film’s insistent score perhaps overemphasizes some of the emotional beats, but whatever niggles we have are forgivable because they all seem designed to make what is a very personal and passionate statement about system-sanctioned social injustice available and accessible and comprehensible to audiences beyond a niche arthouse crowd. Dedicated touchingly to Roger Ebert, “99 Homes” is by no means a perfect film, but it can achieve something more precious, and rarer than glossy perfection: it can take you by the shoulders and shake the apathy and complacency away. [B+/A-]