Venice 2014: 99 Homes

Director: Ramin Bahrani
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern
Length: 112 mins
Country: USA

99 Homes is an ambitious, enraging and socially engaged drama. The sixth feature film of American director Ramin Bahrani, it’s his most intensive and complex work to date. It tells the story of Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), struggling to be a great father to his son Connor (Noah Lomax), a dutiful son to his mother Lynn (Laura Dern) and to put the bread on the table. Sadly, the year is 2010, and the financial crisis is about to reach its peak. Dennis cannot find work in construction anymore and thus cannot continue paying back the loan that he’s taken from the bank and thus his home is being confiscated; this is the story experienced by millions of Americans during the financial crisis, and I’m glad to see it finally being tackled on the big screen.

On the day of the eviction, we encounter one of the central players of the film: Rick Carver (Michael Shannon). A real estate broker, walking about in an impeccable white suit and constantly holding an electronic cigarette in his hand, he could be the devil himself. Not listening to Lynn’s and Dennis’ protests, he calmly removes them to the curb, along with the furniture and household items; their whole life has to fit on the patch of grass in front of the house.

What is Dennis to do? His family moves into a motel along with numerous other families. “How long for are you staying here?” a woman asks Lynn. “A couple of nights,” she answers. “That’s what we said two years ago”. And it is up to Dennis to find a way out of this conundrum. By sheer coincidence, he starts working for Rick Carver, firstly doing house repairs, then – fiddling with Carver’s properties, and, finally, signing deals along with the broker himself and making thousands of dollars.

At first Andrew Garfield’s performance seems quite unconvincing. Perhaps he is troubled that he will be known merely as Spider-Man for the rest of his career, and thus has chosen this project as a means of re-establishing himself as a “serious actor”. He’s trying very hard – and it shows. Adapting a serious, working class hero expression and a kind of naïve determination on his face (think Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine), he fills every scene with attempted working class angst. Sadly, it is angst, not desperation, and it lacks complexity.

However, this works in a perfect duet with Shannon’s interpretation of Carver; Carver is a villain one hates to love, but, eventually, understands. In a press conference Bahrani stated that Carver is not simply a bad person, but a product of a corrupted system; coming from a working class background – his father was a roofer – he needs to survive, to provide, to establish himself. And evicting people from their houses – boxes, he says, not homes, merely boxes – is a means of putting the bread on the table. He’s not driven by mania or drugs, which is quite scary, in fact. Carver’s surface is monolithic, but he’s boiling underneath – and Shannon portrays that miraculously.

99 Homes is Ramin Bahrani’s message of change: in his own words, he premiered it in the Venice Film Festival, and not just in any random cinema, because he believes that it is art, and not money that is going to change the world.

Thus Dennis’ unwillingness and Carver’s pragmatism craft a relationship in which Dennis becomes a protégé, learning tricks of the trade from Carver, and Garfield’s naïve, splashing angst makes it all the more difficult to watch. It is sickeningly ironic and Dennis grows more and more disgusted with himself; yet, again, it is a Faustian deal, and what else can he do? As Carver puts it, good and honest labour got him evicted from his home; seems like there needs to be a change.

Interestingly, both of these characters stem from research that Garfield, Bahrani and Shannon conducted in Florida (the film is set in Orlando). Shannon spent days with a real estate broker and based the majority of his character on those experiences; Garfield lived in a motel on Highway 142 (ironically, on the way to Disneyland), and would call Bahrani every night, bursting with information and impression, whereas the director would write his observations directly into the script. During the same press conference, Garfield revealed that part of performance stemmed from his disgust with the business world, one that his father belonged to, a world that he realised that he could not belong too; and thus his Dennis is constantly trying to catch up, to work out a system that has been designed to befuddled those aren’t predators. Hunt or be hunted.

And, indeed, the pace of the film is like that of a hunt: it’s rapid, reminiscent of an action-filled blockbuster. As Dennis’ doubts grow and Carver makes more money, it all becomes a high-speed carousel of morality and survival, leading up to an inevitable confrontation. 99 Homes is Ramin Bahrani’s message of change: in his own words, he premiered it in the Venice Film Festival, and not just in any random cinema, because he believes that it is art, and not money that is going to change the world. However naïve he may sound, the film delivers a punch in the gut.

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