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Director Ramin Bahrani is known for his use of non-actors in key roles—his first three films, which includes the acclaimed Man Push Cart, featured almost no professional actors. With his latest, the poignant social drama 99 Homes, Bahrani has now graduated to working with an Oscar nominee (Michael Shannon) and a superhero (Andrew Garfield), but his sensibility hasn’t changed a bit. The filmmaker gets powerful performances from a cast of both professionals and amateurs in service of a story that exposes the fraying social fabric of contemporary America.
Home ownership has, for decades, been the crux of the American dream. 99 Homes begins the moment that dream dies for Dennis Nash (Garfield). The out-of-work contractor lives with his son (Noah Lomax) and mother (Laura Dern) in the Orlando house he grew up in. One day, two cops and a realtor (Shannon as Rick Carver) show up on his doorstep to evict them. It’s a heartbreaking scene; Dennis was under the impression he had a month to appeal his eviction, but the police force him and his family to vacate in just two minutes, while Rick’s workers empty the house onto their front lawn in full view of gawking neighbors.
The gut-wrenching sequence sets up Dennis and Rick as polar opposites; Dennis, the evictee, is hyper-emotional, barely containing his mix of anger, sadness, and disillusionment. Rick, meanwhile, is all business, which, in light of the suffering he’s causing, makes him seem something like the devil. And after Dennis and his family move into a hotel, the devil comes calling.
Desperate for cash, Dennis agrees to work for Rick, initially just cleaning up foreclosed houses to prepare for sale, but by the film’s halfway point, he’s evicting others out of their homes. It’s a painful job, but it’s the only one a contractor can get in an economy in which no new houses are being built.
The arc of the film is notably similar to others that have examined American greed. The closest corollary is probably Wall Street; Rick is a Gordon Gekko-type who makes his living off the suffering of others (he even gets a big speech that feels like a knock-off of Gekko’s “Greed is good” monologue). As expected, Dennis is seduced by Rick’s ability to make money at will, quickly forgetting the only reason he worked with him in the first place was to get his house back. Pretty soon, it’s girls, booze, and cigars, and we know our hero is in for a moral reckoning.
Although the story beats are occasionally too predictable, there’s value in taking a cautionary tale we’ve often placed in the financial industry in a new venue. Bahrani shows us the human face of corrupt business dealings, aided by some truly committed actors; though Garfield, at times, embodies a mess of contradictions. As the character adjusts to the hardness of his new lifestyle—carrying a gun, defending himself from angry evictees—Garfield seems to be constantly fighting back tears, hiding a sensitive soul behind a rough-and-tumble exterior.
And yet it’s Shannon’s work that feels like the film’s anchor. Unlike Douglas in Wall Street, Shannon gives his character a clear sense of motivation. In one scene, Rick actually explains the circumstances that led to his greedy nature, but it’s unnecessary since his performance shows it. Behind Shannon’s reptilian eyes and his hard, sun-baked exterior is an old, broken skeleton held up by sheer will and determination. It’s a chilling depiction of American avarice as understandable—even justifiable—but nonetheless without any hope for redemption.
99 Homes opens Friday Landmark’s E Street Cinema.