This review was originally published during our coverage of TIFF 2014.
For more than a century, great artists, novelists and filmmakers have examined the question: What is the American Dream? Their stories of men and women rising from rags to riches, in means dignified and corrupt, have electrified audiences. The latest masterwork to explore that dream state (or the lack thereof) is Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes, a masterfully acted and searing look at a fractious time of modern American history: the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, which left both rich and poor out of their homes. However, in a world of enormous disparity between the ultra-rich and the paycheck-to-paycheck poor, a better question would be: Where is the American Dream?
Well, it is certainly not in Florida, where 99 Homes is set, a state where the prosperity of gated communities meets the grind of small-town poverty. Bahrani’s drama opens on a man lying dead in his bathroom, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Looking at the body in awe but not too much disgust is Ray Carver (Michael Shannon), a realtor who represents one of the most powerful banks in the nation. It is his job to ensure that the mortgages his bank’s clients can no longer pay are added to his employer’s coffers, even if it leaves the men, women and children in these homes without a place of their own. The bank can legally usurp their property, so he is on the side of the law, he tells himself. Ray answers the people he evicts with an unfeeling response; he drives a Range Rover but does not have much emotional range.
Ray is on a collision course with Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), who is affected in two ways by the financial crisis. First, a halted construction job forces him out of work. Second, he can no longer afford the mortgage on his Orlando home. Ray and two policemen knock on Dennis’s door and force him out, along with the electrician’s son Connor (Noah Lomax) and mother Lynn (Laura Dern). Shelved up at a crowded motel with their belongings, his family relies on him to get work in a cloudy economic climate. The unemployed Dennis finally finds some refuge – but it is as the apprentice for Ray, the man who handed him an eviction notice.
99 Homes comes from director Ramin Bahrani, whose tales of ordinary folks in unfortunate circumstances brought him much attention on the festival circuit. In his most accessible film to date, the director blends in two styles that normally do not mix – neorealism and melodrama – to create a story of bruised humanism and gripping suspense. It is a film that could easily have condescended with characters that fall too concretely on the sides of black and white, the 99% vs. the 1%. (it is easy to believe that the 99 from the title refers to the plight of the common individual against the monopoly of the elite). However, Bahrani and co-scribe Amir Naderi are too perceptive and intelligent to depict these two men in simplistic ways.
Lending the film its emotional anchor is Garfield, who has never been better than he is as the desperate Dennis. We notice his anxiety of his hypocritical work on behalf of Ray, as he helps to wreck the lives of others in his community. At first, the 31-year-old actor looks a bit too youthful to portray the father of a grade-school kid; however, he shares great chemistry with Lomax and possesses the capacity to go through a lot of dramatic changes in the course of a given scene. This is a nuanced, mature turn. When he evicts a family whose son goes to school with Connor, Garfield’s voice tries its best to stay firm, his eyes wavering as to not collapse into tears of acknowledgment. (This scene is filmed at the same angles as the early moment when Ray kicks Dennis and his family out of their home, a mirror that Dennis realizes at once.)
As a man grappling with his own version of the American Dream, Garfield probes deeper than he ever has before. He is aided by a generous supporting turn from Shannon, whose Carver is not just a vindictive 1% representative, but a man who fought to get to that top tier percentile and will not let go. “America was built by bailing out winners,” he exalts at one point, cementing his drive to reach that level. As much as Ray seems to contrast Dennis, both men are made of the same stuff: a mission to help their families and make a buck, even if its means are not necessarily honest. Shannon is too smart of an actor (and Bahrani and Naderi nuanced writers) to turn Ray into a symbol of outright villainy. He is calculating and charmless, but there is color and purpose underneath his frigid expression.
Ray tells Dennis in one scene, “Don’t get emotional about real estate.” However, like Dennis, it may be hard for audiences to abandon their emotional capacity when watching 99 Homes. It is a deeply humanist film, sympathetic to the poor souls who are the victim of little more than bad deals and financial corruption they had little control over. Bahrani’s film could have been too dispassionate, aiming to document this troubling era with an overly neorealist angle. Meanwhile, it also could have been too passionate, favoring emotional resonance over story. Instead, he and Naderi make 99 Homes a compassionate film, sympathizing with the characters while also showing their grim circumstances. The drama works as both a snapshot of modern times and a galvanizing look at class relations in America.
The eviction scenes are wrenching, but the musical score (from Animal Kingdom‘s Antony Partos) that plays above many of them frets and gallops, creating suspense instead of heightened emotional drama. The music serves as a representation of the coiled anxiety of the character to rush through the packing and leave. Meanwhile, the camerawork from Bobby Bukowski (who also shot fellow TIFF selections Rosewater and Infinitely Polar Bear) moves, appropriately, between documentary-style intimacy in more harrowing moments and longer tracking shots when following the sleek realtor in action. In one of the film’s more telling moments, a swimming pool is superimposed over Dennis lying, in despaired disarray, on a carpet. The image is striking, evoking how the character is drowning in his tortured frame-of-mind.
Bahrani dedicated 99 Homes to Roger Ebert, putting his name immediately after the film’s principal cast. As some may recall from Life Itself, Steve James’ poignant doc about the late veteran film critic, Ebert was one of Bahrani’s early champions and later befriended the filmmaker. Ebert loved films that encountered social issues in a way that was appealing to the average moviegoer. He also loved films that showed the bright side of the American dream – inspiring underdog doc Hoop Dreams was his favorite film of the 1990s – and those with a bleaker forecast about that dream. (Goodfellas ranked third on that decade-best list.) As you see Ebert’s name in the end credits, one imagines just how much the critic would have adored Bahrani’s newest film. And it is easy to imagine that you will, too.
A searing, compassionate film set in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, 99 Homes is one of the finest films about contemporary American life.