famously scoffed, "Your house is just a place for your stuff." But to writer-director Ramin Bahrani, a house is something far more than that. Bahrani, whose previous films include the very good Goodbye Solo (about a gregarious cab driver connecting with his sullen fare) and the very bad At Any Price (about a farmer struggling to keep pace with his competition), makes movies about the existential plight of the common American man. His heroes are hardy, blue-collar folks who nobly toil at their labor while evading the wrath of pitiless institutions, seeking to do little more than provide for their families. That is why, to Bahrani, a house—or, more accurately, a home—is not simply a receptacle. It is instead a birthright, an important symbol of the foundational American dream and a sacred place of familial tradition and honor.
Which makes Rick Carver, the licensed real estate broker at the center of Bahrani's 99 Homes, something of a bad guy. Actually, that's being kind. In the context of 99 Homes,
Rick is an utter reprobate, the embodiment of corporate greed and
inhuman selfishness. We first meet Rick, who is portrayed with snarling
relish by the great character actor Michael Shannon, in the film's
electric opening shot, which begins in a bathroom where an anonymous man
has just committed suicide via pistol; the camera then glides to Rick
and follows him as he strolls through the deceased's house, barks
unsympathetic orders to the sheriff, and heads out into the bright
Florida sun before sliding into his luxury sedan. The suicide, we
quickly learn, occurred after Rick informed the nominal homeowner that
his house now belonged to the bank. Tragic, right? It's just another day
at the office for Rick, who makes his lavish living capably and
remorselessly representing various banks, helping to evict residents who
have failed to make their mortgage payments and whose homes have
entered foreclosure. Though he operates in Florida, he is essentially an
instrumentality of Wall Street, a man who executes the will of corrupt
and unfeeling conglomerates. He may not be the devil, but he's basically
the devil's agent.
Where Rick is the undisputed villain of 99 Homes, its less-certain hero is Dennis Nash (Andrew
Garfield). Dennis is, at least at first, the quintessential Bahrani
protagonist, a down-on-his-luck single father who works tirelessly as a
construction laborer to support both his son, Connor (Noah Lomax), and
his mother, Lynn (a shrill Laura Dern). The three live in a modest
Orlando abode, one that Dennis repeatedly refers to as "the family home"
and which is clearly filled with love as well as stuff. But business is
slow, Dennis has fallen behind on his payments, and despite his
emergency efforts to take legal recourse, one day Rick Carver knocks on
his door. The next thing he knows, his furniture is scattered along the
curb, and he's driving his family across town to a cheap motel, where
they're surrounded by fellow victims of the Great Recession.
At this point, you almost certainly feel bad for Dennis, but Bahrani
seeks to elicit more than your pity. He wants your rage. At its core, 99 Homes
is a blood-boiling screed, and there is something strangely honest in
the way it stacks the deck against Dennis so schematically. (To wit: The
judge who hears Dennis's case is unconscionably apathetic.) This movie
is not objective, nor is it designed to be. And even if you take issue
with Bahrani's politics, you can still admire his evident passion and
acid tone. He cares deeply about this material, and while he may be a
bleeding heart, he won't hesitate to punch you in the stomach.
You can see where this journey is going, though you probably can't
anticipate the sheer ludicrousness of the destination. But before 99 Homes
spirals into a fog of contrivance and melodrama, it serves nicely as a
Faustian fable. In working for Rick, Dennis becomes precisely the type
of callous individual he so despises, an opportunistic slimeball who
views houses as transitory pieces of property rather than consecrated
ground. Of course, Dennis constantly reminds Rick that he's only taking
the latter's money so that he can reclaim his own family home, which is a
fairly convincing display of self-delusion. ("Don't get emotional about
real estate," replies Rick, who rarely gets emotional about anything,
except when an underling fails to do his bidding.) And so, 99 Homes slowly plumbs the depths to which Dennis will
descend in order to lift himself out of his predicament. He wants to buy
his house back, and all he has to do is sell his soul.
It's all very black-and-white, or it would be if Bahrani hadn't cast
such talented actors. Garfield and Shannon both excel at locating
crevices of dimension beneath flat surfaces, and they provide 99 Homes
with more texture than it deserves. Garfield makes Dennis's dilemma
thorny and compelling, polluting his well-meaning drive to support his
family with chagrined self-awareness and mounting self-loathing.
Shannon, meanwhile, has great fun baring his teeth—Rick is constantly
vaping, because that is clearly something evil men do—but he also hints
that Rick is simply a product of circumstance; in the movie's best
scene, he delivers a great, swaggering monologue about America's
grotesque financial system and how it transformed him into an eviction
That is far from the last credulity-straining event in this heartfelt,
absurd film. As the sirens start to scream and the bullets begin to fly,
it becomes clear that Bahrani has no interest in tempering his homily
with plausibility. Yet what really stings about the maudlin conclusion
to 99 Homes is that, in restoring Dennis to his dignity, it
strips him of his humanity. He becomes a mere puppet, a figurehead for
Bahrani's soapbox theatrics. The director undeniably (and
understandably) wants Dennis's redemption to produce a shudder of
catharsis, but he fails to make that catharsis believable or persuasive.
That's the sad irony of Dennis's predictable arc in 99 Homes. His salvation is the movie's doom.