' ' Cinema Romantico: 99 Homes

Monday, November 16, 2015

99 Homes

In a way, Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes” is just an update on Oliver Stone’s 1980’s famous financial opus, but with Orlando and the fraught late aughts real estate market standing in for the wiles of “Wall Street.” But if Stone was intent to glamorize such fiscal malfeasance, as was Martin Scorsese in his garish and entertaining chronicling of Wall Street’s most notorious Wolf, Bahrani never lets such spectacular excess creep into his work. Yes, there are finely cut suits and McMansions and even one brief drug-fueled bacchanal, but everything feels empty, hollowed out, strictly joyless, even a marriage to a pretty young girl mentioned only in regards to “taxes”. This is mirrored in the performance of Michael Shannon. His infamous grimace here communicates that greed isn’t so much good as the only choice. Either you die homeless or live long enough to become a white collar criminal.

Shannon’s Rick Carver is the devil in a white linen jacket, ruthless mortgage broker skulking around central Florida evicting people from their foreclosed homes. His unwilling accomplice becomes a young construction worker, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), who has his home taken by Carver in a scene of extraordinarily emotionally charged filmmaking in which Bahrani’s neo-realism roots are on full, squirm-inducing display. The sequence is not trumped up and the tragedy is not built to or belabored; it just happens, swiftly. One minute, it’s the home Dennis and his young son (Noah Lomax) and mother (Laura Dern) have lived in all their lives. The next, everything they own is out on the curb. The casual callousness in Carver’s voice - "It's not your home, son" - is terrifying, mirroring the helplessness of the Nash family, made that much more helpless by their standard-issue pleas of how the whole thing must be a mix-up. By starting this scene with Carver and then segueing to the Nash’s, we see it as much through Carver’s eyes, which makes Nash’s pleas sound as empty to our ears as they do to his. These are the things everyone says. Carver hardly even hears them.

The Nash’s are forced to move to a kind of modern shantytown, an apartment complex strewn with other poor souls on whom the evil bank foreclosed, unable to find a way out with no cash and no credit. Dennis not only needs to get his family out, he needs to get his family back to their family home, and this becomes a lesson “99 Homes” imparts with impressively clear eyes. Carvel councils his young charge not to view that home of so much history through any kind of nostalgic lens because in this world, every home is just a box. “Small boxes and large boxes.” That’s it. Either they make you money or lose all you have.

Sensing a work ethic in Dennis, or, more likely, an acute desperation which he could exploit, Carver brings the young father into his business, showing him the ropes and giving him increasing amounts of responsibility. Before long, Dennis is going to other people’s homes and foreclosing on them, becoming the same sort of person he wanted so desperately to beat to a pulp. Perhaps the parallels between good Dennis and evil Dennis are on the nose, but the point Bahrani draws out of these encounters and Dennis’s newfound cash inflow and sense of purpose are no less effective. In the view of “99 Homes” the middle class is slowly being squeezed out, leaving only rich or poor, no in-between, and you gotta pick side.

This is the real message delivered by Carver. At first, he might seem a simple villain, vaping, dressed to the nines. But then he dispassionately delivers an impassioned speech, revealing that his roots, in construction and roofing, were no different than Nash’s, and upon realizing America was trending toward giving up on his kind, Carver made the choice not to get left behind. And while Garfield does fine work, effectively evincing a man who seems to be in quicksand every moment of the day, even when he's making good, selling his soul even as he reaches the point where he can finally buy back his home, it is Shannon’s gripping turn, effusing a nasty faith in Darwinism, that epitomizes “99 Homes” and the place where this strange new millennium America has found itself.

Still, even that isn’t so simple, and “99 Homes”, its narrative wrap-up perhaps a bit too neat, working a little too much like literary clockwork, provides an obvious reckoning for Carver that winds up not being so obvious at all. Shannon does not play it enraged; he plays it...relieved. Deep down, a heart beats still. The truth sets him free. Though Bahrani views the world in the context of “99 Homes” as incredibly black and white, he also does not see this as an excuse for unethical behavior, which fashions a dilemma that seems practically unsolvable. Perhaps in a world where morals have run amok in the name of more (and more) money, all you can hope to achieve in the end is a clear conscience.

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