It is hard to think of a more evocative word than ‘home’. In this knowledge it’s used over and over again in Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes, often to incongruous effect when a character would far more naturally say ‘house’. The idea is to emphasise that where you live is not just a pile of bricks with an Xbox and a fridge in it, but a part of yourself and your family.
It’s 2010 Florida, two years post-financial crash, and Rick Carver, Michael Shannon’s disreputable realtor, makes a killing buying foreclosed properties dirt-cheap then flipping them quick. He uses the word more than anyone else, letting you know he’s well aware what a home means to its owner, even as he dispassionately turfs them and their belongings out into the front garden. We see him first when he pitches up at the family doorstep of Dennis Nash and his mother Lynn (Andrew Garfield and Laura Dern). Throughout the impossibly tense scene that follows, the Nashes, the victims of bad advice from a now-unresponsive bank, are reasonable and cooperative until they’re given two minutes to pack their things and leave, showing us they’re not irresponsible spendthrifts. Carver just stands and vapes implacably.
Dennis, a young single father, ends up working for Carver to buy back his house, and the Faustian pact begins. Smart and creative, he’s a better backslider than he wants to be, and soon he’s on the other side of the doorstep, screwing people just like him out of their homes.
There are echoes throughout 99 Homes of similar narratives. Amsterdam Vallon comes to see Bill Cutting as a surrogate father while he plots to kill him; Bud Fox is drawn into a world of greed and corruption by Gordon Gekko. They go in with pure intent but are seduced by the rewards on offer. The corrupt mentor story has been done, sure, but here it’s elevated by the acting. Garfield brims with decency and conflicted guilt, more than a match for the constant close-up shots, always underplaying Nash’s satisfaction at a job well done as it chips away a bit of his humanity. He’s a convincing father to a nearly teenage son too, bearing in mind we last saw him playing the teenage Peter Parker himself. Roles as big as that can stick to you for years, but this is an enviably clean break with no web residue in sight.
Shannon is on well-trodden turf as a bad guy but wrings a lot from the idea of Carver as a beneficiary of his circumstances. We see snatches of his home life with his daughters, and watch him indulge in the self-justification of the opportunist. “America doesn’t bail out the losers,” he tells Nash. “America was built by bailing out winners, by rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners.”
This is the problem with the American Dream. It’s built on a meritocratic ideal of rewarding effort, with which no one would argue, but there’s no choke-chain built in when people get greedy. When did Carver cross the line? He got richer during the financial crash than before, so at some stage he began actively profiting from others’ misfortune. The moral line is drawn at the same point wherever film discusses the American Dream: Goodfellas, Scarface, Pain & Gain, all caution responsible capitalism.
As a discussion point, 99 Homes is timely: while set only five years ago it’s a period piece of sorts, documenting the sheer insanity of the housing market just after the crash. In confronting the morals of profiteering it harks back to the cinema of the eighties as a record of a time we’ll come to view as significant in US history, when thousands were left to fend for themselves after the pitfalls of over-reliance on the financial sector were made horribly clear. With a deftly simple script propped up by a career-high performance from Garfield and a pitch-perfect, quieter turn from Shannon, it does this job fantastically well.
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