As a filmmaker, Ramin Bahrani is more chronicler than storyteller. In movies like Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo, he has observed individuals up close, letting their rhythms dictate the flow of his films. His latest reveals some of the limitations of such an approach. 99 Homes is strongest when it captures the anger and desperation of those affected by the recent collapse of the housing market, but the narrative engine is far less propulsive. When Bahrani is not at the top of his game, the milieu is more interesting than what the people in that world do.
Andrew Garfield stars as Dennis Nash, an Orlando single father whose family home is about to be foreclosed on. The man who comes to his door to deliver the bad news is Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), a shady realtor who carries a concealed weapon because of past altercations. Nash despises Carver, but because he’s desperate for a job he accepts work from the realtor. Nash is handy—he used to work in construction—so he starts off doing manual labor, but soon he graduates to being Carver’s right-hand man, becoming more involved in the realtor’s unscrupulous business practices.
By means of comparison, 99 Homes could be Bahrani’s Wall Street, a story about an idealist who gets corrupted by the allure of riches. The interesting wrinkle is that Nash’s road to hell is actually paved with cynicism—at the banks that stole his home and the government that turned its back on him. Deciding that there really isn’t any such thing as personal ethics anymore, Nash spearheads Carver’s plan to buy up troubled homes for low money and then flip them for a huge profit. (He also steals air conditioners and water pumps from Carver-owned foreclosed houses so that Carver can charge the government for replacement ones.) Nash goes into all this with open eyes: As far as he’s concerned, he’d rather be the one screwing somebody else than getting screwed himself.
This mindset dominates the landscape of 99 Homes. Characters fall into two camps: winners and losers. There are far more of the latter as the evicted are forced to live in shitty hotels, beg the courts for leniency, and rail at the Carvers of the world who are making a killing off of their misery. This is a movie about the pain and shame of unemployment, of falling outside the margins of society, of watching the American dream pass you by.
Bahrani captures the ugliness and sadness of that world, and he’s assisted by Garfield, who gives his most barebones performance as this poorly educated, resilient man. Living with his mother (played by Laura Dern) and young son in a motel, he swears he’ll get back their house—the one he grew up in—and the surprise comes in how guilt-free Nash is over his new career. Garfield plays Nash as a tough guy with nothing else to lose, the sort of person who’s most willing to do unethical things and then justify them to himself. The performance is understated and edgy, Garfield stripping away the precocious angst of his turns in The Social Network and the Spider-Man films for something more akin to his breakout role as the young delinquent in Boy A.
Unfortunately, Nash’s arc is awfully similar not just to Charlie Sheen’s young stockbroker in Wall Street but also Ray Liotta’s low-level hood in Goodfellas. 99 Homes eventually becomes a familiar cautionary tale about the hazards of greed and the dangers of losing one’s soul in pursuit of the almighty dollar. (If those clichés weren’t hoary enough, we also get a scene of Nash bedding a random beauty while at a blinged-out Carver party.) Bahrani doesn’t have much illuminating to say about Nash as a person, but there’s nonetheless a palpable anger that oozes through the film: Yes, the filmmaker seems to be saying, the storyline is conventional, but remember that these sorts of things are happening in America right now.
As for Shannon, his portrayal of Carver isn’t as monumental as his work with Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories), but there’s a live-wire antagonism to this realtor that makes him more of a glorified street thug than a proper businessman. In a sense, 99 Homes is a tale of the modern Wild Wild West, which makes Carver the guy in the black hat who rides roughshod over this lawless land. Shannon gives a controlled, tightly wound performance, but Carver, like Nash, feels a little underwritten, a little too symbolic of a character to completely resonate.
And yet, 99 Homes stays with you. The agony it depicts and the almost inarticulate rage it expresses are too insistent to shake off. The betting is that this film won’t be remembered as one of Bahrani’s best. But when we look back at the Great Recession years from now, 99 Homes may be one of those films we point to and say, “That was sort of what it felt like at the time.”
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Writers: Ramin Bahrani, Amir Naderi (screenplay); Ramin Bahrani, Bahareh Azimi
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, Tim Guinee
Release Date: Screening at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.