Review: Garfield and Shannon spark in broad brush moral crisis drama ’99 Homes’

VENICE – The title treatment for Ramin Bahrani's Venice Competition entry consists of blood red letters on black. Filling the entire screen with blocky all-caps letters and numbers dozens of feet high, we read: 99 HOMES. It looks more like the title treatment for a horror than a drama digging into a moral morass of foreclosure, subsistence level employment, and better paid but more spiritually costly work. As it turns out, it is also a horror movie of sorts. The first shot of the film itself is even a post-mortem scene, as Michael Shannon's predatory realtor Rick Carver — and how's that for a horror movie name? — gazes almost impassively at blood dribbling down tacky pink bathroom tiles.

The contrast couldn't be more stark: Shannon in an off-white blazer so sharp it hurts (costume design by Meghan Kasperlik is on point throughout), gold watch glinting and not a hair of his immaculate coiffure out of place, and opposite him the feet of the poor faceless schmo lying just out of shot who has blown his brains out all over a bathroom that until recently he thought belonged to him. Sure, Rick Carver didn't pull the trigger, but we instinctively sense from the power dynamic of the scene that he might as well have done. Carver sees it differently: he didn't force anyone to take out a loan they couldn't afford to repay.

This is one of the film's central anxieties: to what extent are people who overextend their finances based on bad advice responsible for their own fate when economies crash? Or rather, when economies are crashed, by frat boy bankers drunk at the wheel/by the inevitable and unpredictable forces of a global economic weather system/by sinister figures who know they can foster even more division and make even more money in a recession (choose your own adventure depending on preference).

One area where there's little room for ambiguity rears its head in 99 Homes' first fifteen minutes: the brutal process by which repossessions of properties seized by the banks is carried out. We meet Andrew Garfield's construction worker Dennis Nash moments after we're introduced to Carver, and it's immediately apparent that the chasm between them is wide. In a black long sleeved tee and black baseball cap, when we meet him Garfield already looks like he's sporting a blue collar spin on mourning garb.

The deceased takes the form of his profession — there's not much need for construction workers during a property crisis. Soon, he's answering his own door to Carver and his uniformed heavies, who inform him and his mom (Laura Dern, underused) that they are trespassing on a foreclosed property and must vacate the Orlando family home they've inhabited for years. As a courtesy, they will be given two minutes to collect any particularly essential or valuable items. In the middle of it all, a school bus pulls up and out skips Nash's young son (Noah Lomax), who can't understand why he can't go to his room.

There's no debate about the legality of banks seizing properties: it is legal. There is plenty of room for debate about the causes and consequences of repossession. But there can be very few people who feel at all ambiguous about the heavy-handed methodology by which this process is enacted – it is monstrous. Why two minutes? What purpose can that miserly timeframe possibly serve, other than to further dismay, punish and disorient people already stripped of their dignity? We're automatically on Nash's side as a response to this trauma, regardless of the ins and outs of how he got there.

Having played his first hand using a stacked deck, emotionally speaking, it's to Bahrani's credit that he subsequently manages to lead us through a spectrum of other perspectives as the film progresses. It's a spectrum painted with a broad brush (and highlighted by an extremely insistent score that will irritate fans of subtlety). Bahrani's arguments are laid out as cleanly and simply as an ethics textbook's hypothetical dialogues, but I rather respected that about this exercise. The result is a film that stands a chance of finding a broad audience. A 99% audience, if you like. Yes, there are probably more complex and nuanced ways of tackling this topic, but it's hugely important that a mainstream drama on this subject exists.

It would have been easy, having lined up this particular set of ducks of the first few minutes of the film, to write a good vs evil narrative about Nash's battle against the odds to get his home back for his family. Instead, Bahrani and Amir Naderi's script has him go work for Carver, with the end game of earning enough to reclaim his house. Initially hired as a literal shoveler of shit ($250 to clean up a bathroom deliberately flooded with effluent in a repossessed house with the words “kill bankers” sprayed on the wall), Nash rapidly progresses to protegee. It sounds unlikely, but strong writing absolutely makes this idea fly: Nash's desperation, the parlous state of the job market and plausible circumstantial logistics combine in a narrative pincer movement to make the move feel almost inevitable rather than far-fetched.

Other than the unsubtle but vivid storytelling, the main joy of “99 Homes” is seeing two excellent but very different actors spark off each other for almost the entire runtime, in a brace of performances both brilliant and brilliantly matched. The majority of “99 Homes'” most memorable scenes involve both Garfield and Shannon, and it's perhaps a weakness that Garfield's family set up is always less engaging than the dynamic between the two men.

Carver quickly comes to feel like a suspect but fairly affable uncle, a Mephistophelean figure offering riches with one hand and handwaving the consequences with the other – “toughen up, son!” The surprise is that he's often very charming, thanks to Shannon's off-kilter charisma – we can understand why Nash falls for his aggressive free market spiel, which divides the world into saps and people with the balls to wring money from saps. A scene where Carver reveals his own fear of failing in a country designed by and for winners gives us just enough psychological depth to round out the character without excusing his ultimately nihilistic outlook.

On the other side of the coin, Carver's increasingly shady schemes throw Nash into an ethical endurance test – the question of how long he can stay seated on the bucking bronco of profit-above-people provides a sufficiently suspenseful arc for the character. Shannon's is the splashier performance, but Garfield's is arguably the trickier role: he has to be an Everyman in relation to an issue about which everyone has their own opinion, from cinemagoers to pundits to filmmakers.

Oddly, the filmmaker that came to mind as I watched 99 Homes was the rather unlikely figure of David Cronenberg, and specifically, his unpopular 2012 Cannes Competition entry “Cosmopolis” (which I liked a great deal). “Cosmopolis” made a bee-line for the 1%, or even the 0.1%, focusing on, dissecting and magnifying their rarefied world. “99 Homes” targets a different part of the financial pyramid altogether – the have-nots and the middle men.

Now, I'm aware that “99 Homes” and “Cosmopolis” are utterly alien from each other in terms of tone or genre, but here's the thing — they both nail a crucial, load-bearing facet of the financial crisis: time. We just need more time, the victims of foreclosure plead. Time to organize an appeal, time to pay what they owe, time to clear out their belongings and work out what they're doing.

Dennis Nash doesn't have enough time. Working in construction, there aren't enough hours in the day to render the amount he gets paid per hour a tenable income for his modest lower middle class lifestyle. Time is not on his side. In “Cosmopolis”, banker Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) slices his invaluable time into ever thinner wafers, in units ever more obscure: seconds, nanoseconds, yocto-seconds. While people like Nash cannot fit enough hours of pay into their day, people like Packer don't have time to spend the billions they make per second. Time is money, but unlike money, time is finite, and there is a limit to humanity's power to twist time into new shapes. Something's gotta give. If not time, then humanity. That's the message of “99 Homes” in the final analysis: you can choose money, or you can choose to be human.

It's a dilemma which has preoccupied Bahrani for much of his filmography. Following the relative disappointment with which “At Any Price” was received, “99 Homes” sees Bahrani back on form with a film that should have no trouble connecting with most critics. It doesn't feel like the sort of top tier film that sweeps awards, but solid support from reviews will hopefully see it find a wide audience. All the same, I'm glad it's not my job to sell it – my understanding is that “foreclosure”, “mortgages” and “repossessions” aren't exactly the buzzwords all the cool kids in marketing are desperate to incorporate into their promotional material.

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